Books: Faery Tale

Despite what you might think from the title, Faery Tale has very little in common with stories by Hans Christian Andersen, the Brothers Grimm, or various modern retellings of such stories. What it does have in common with them is the idea of a world where things happen that are described by words like magic, enchantment, and – from a different perspective – superstition.

Partly travelogue, partly memoir, it is the story of one woman’s quest for the truth about the existence of fairies (or, using the spelling she prefers, faeries). Unlike many writers who try to track down the real story behind apparently outlandish tales, Signe Pike hopes that the magic will be true, not just a trick of the light or a figment of an over-excited imagination.

Quitting one’s job to go on a three-month search for creatures most of her contemporaries do not believe in is quite an unusual venture. I could be cynical and say that it didn’t matter what she found – or didn’t find – because she already had a contract to write a book about her search. But her need was real, to find more to life than that which can be easily seen and explained.

Many people in that situation, especially after the death of a loved one (in this case, her father), turn to traditional religion. Signe recalls that her family had not been particularly religious in the conventional sense (she doesn’t explain in what other sense it might have been meaningful), so there was no childhood faith to return to as an adult. On the other hand, she did have a friend who not only believed in fairies, but assured Signe that there were some in her New York apartment.

I don’t remember now how I came across a mention of this book, prompting me to get it from the library. It’s not typical of the books I read – though I don’t know just how one would characterize a “typical” book based on my reading habits. But I was intrigued by the idea of someone in this day and age going on a quest of this nature. And the places she would visit are ones I would enjoy seeing, both for their natural beauty and their cultural heritage.

Signe recalls her unquestioning belief in fairies when she was a young child. I don’t know how many children share such a belief – I enjoyed fantasy stories but don’t remember ever thinking they were anything but fiction – but children do often seem more open to a sense of wonder than adults do. Signe longs to recapture that sense.

I wanted to find something of the beauty of myth that we’ve left behind, … I wanted to see if enchantment was somehow still there, simply waiting to be reached. …
I really don’t believe in faeries. But I really want to. Not just for me, but for all of us.

As a young teenager, I felt that way about belief in God. I had concluded, sometime in middle school, that if God existed, He had little or nothing to do with my life. Yet I encountered people who did believe, both in books I read and among my acquaintances. (I continued attending church weekly, but it was a church that did not much care what people believed, as long as they followed the dictum to “Love your neighbor as yourself.”)

I decided that faith was desirable and admirable. But I had no idea where to reach inside myself and find a faith “switch” to turn on. My own search led me to a fundamentalist church that my older sister was attending. My faith journey has gone in a number of different directions since then, but always within the context of the Christian faith.

I have read books on world religions, wondering whether the truth was really found in the Bible and not in the sacred traditions of other religions. Contrary to what some people say about the essential teachings of all religions being the same, I was struck more by the profound differences among them. I believe that all truth comes from God, and that some truths are found in all religions – but that salvation comes through Jesus Christ. Outside of Christianity, only Judaism holds any appeal to me.

The thought of looking for meaning to life through a search for fairies seems even more strange to me than looking for it in Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, or other religions. But in some ways, I recognized a similarity between Signe’s quest and my own. Shortly after she arrived in England, someone told her that she needed to learn to trust. In a sense, her entire journey was as much about learning to trust as learning about fairies and the people who believed in them.

Some fifteen years ago (while my husband was in seminary), my pastor told me that my problem is not so much that I have trouble trusting God as that I have trouble trusting anyone. I hadn’t thought of myself as a particularly untrusting person, but my husband quickly confirmed my pastor’s opinion. Even with people I (think that I) trust, I seem unable to trust fully.

I can’t think of much to say by way of summary of Signe’s travels and discoveries, except that I found them fairly interesting but not gripping. Other than one experience, of being surrounded by tiny twinkling lights (which did not act at all like fireflies, she says), the “evidence” she collected was pretty much circumstantial. Of course, one could say the same about many if not most testimonies I have heard of God’s work in someone’s life. There is almost always a way to explain events as being simple coincidence. But that is no reason to believe that God was not involved.

Late in the book, Signe remarks on how many people she met who believed in God, but thought it was nonsense to believe in fairies. They had no trouble believing in “a world outside our range of human perception.” But unlike Signe, they were sure that it was a world where God and angels were real, but fairies were pure superstition.

I grew tired of hearing people argue that God was real but faeries weren’t. … I would ask them why they felt that way, and the funniest thing was, no one knew. “Because God is real and faeries are fictitious,” came the common response.

I ask myself what answer I would give someone like Signe to that question. Because the Bible talks about God and angels but not about fairies? I’m sure many Christians would consider that a more than adequate answer, but I’m not sure it really answers the question. I have long thought that the widespread belief in “a world outside our range of human perception,” whether it is in God as portrayed in the Bible, or spirits of nature, or ghosts, or auras, or even fairies, is good evidence for a spiritual dimension to life, even if I don’t think people are accurate in their description of it.

I am sure that there is a great deal more to the universe we live in than what can be detected by human senses. I have no reason to believe that fairies exist, but no reason to categorically deny the possibility either. People trying to describe experiences with a world beyond human understanding are going to put it terms that make sense within their own cultural background. And inevitably such stories become distorted and embellished with the passing of time.

One final note: I find it significant that nearly all the high points of Signe’s travels involved meaningful interactions with other human beings. Some were long-time friends or relatives, others were new acquaintances. Whether they believed in fairies or not themselves, they shared friendship, food, laughter, and practical help. Early in the book, Signe says that she had lost her faith in humanity. It would seem that, through her search for non-human beings, she renewed something important in her relationships with other people.

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2 Responses to Books: Faery Tale

  1. modestypress says:

    You are on very dangerous territory. Of course, no one knows for sure where the universe came from or how life began, but it’s fairly clear that 1. science is closer to answering these questions than folk myths and 2. that there is no inherent meaning or purpose in life. That means that most of the other answers to #1 are creations of the human mind and that any answer we come up with for #2 have to come from the human mind and imagination (God being so silent on the matter). Quite a few people I know still believe God answers #1 & #2, though they have thousands of different variations on what the answer is (a clue that the religion answer is a human creation). Quite a few people I know have cobbled together answers having to do with the natural world, with variations ranging from Gaea to bird watching to deep ecology to keeping chickens (my wife’s answer). Quite a few people with childish or (to be kinder) child-like imaginations come up with answers such as believing in or pursuing faeries.

    I am not going to read this book, but, as usual, your post is interesting and well-written. Your last paragraph is a perceptive and pertinent one. Churches (of every variety) were the original “social networks.” The last sentence indicates that she created a “faery-enchanted” social network.

    • Pauline says:

      Where the universe came from? I wasn’t aware science had come up with more than speculation on that. How the universe developed once it began – yes, I think science has better answers than folk myths. As far as how life began, I think science is still working on that one too. Of course, I suppose it depends on how you define “life.” My 12-year-old asked me the other day why viruses aren’t considered living. They certainly seem alive in some ways – but I guess not in others.

      In any case, I don’t think it’s so “fairly clear” that there is no inherent meaning or purpose in life. And as for answers coming from human minds and imaginations – well, in order for us to learn them, where else would we find them? If there is a God, and I realize that you don’t think there is, He has to communicate with humans in ways we are able to understand. He could make rocks talk if He chose to, but they’d still have to speak in human languages.

      Because human minds and imaginations are very capable of coming up with wrong answers, we don’t want to accept ideas blindly. But the fact that some ideas are wrong does not mean that none can be right.

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