Titania and Oberon, Puck and Peaseblossom capture our modern idea of what fairies are or might be. Show me a child who hasn't clapped their hands to keep Tinkerbell's fluttering heart from fading away or watched in delight as Disney's fairies flit across a woodland glade. But this pretty pastel world of gauzy winged things who grant wishes and make dreams come true is predated by a darker, denser world of gorgons, goblins and gellos; the ancient antecedents of Shakespeare's mischievous Puck or J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan. For, as Diana Purkiss explains in this engrossing history, ancient fairies were born of fear: fear of the dark, of death, and of the other great rites of passage, birth and sex. To understand the importance of these early fairies to pre-industrial peoples, we need to recover that sense of dread. "Troublesome Things" begins with the earliest manifestations of fairies in the ancient civilizations of the Mediterannean. The child-killing demons and nymphs of these cultures are the joint ancestors of the mediaeval fairies of nothern Europe, when fairy figures provided a bridge between the secular and the sacred. Fairies abducted babies and virgins, spirited away young men who were seduced by fairy queens and remained suspended in liminal states. Tamed by Shakespeare's view of the spirit world, Victorian fairies fluttered across the theatre stage and the pages of children's books to reappear a century later as detergent trade marks and alien abductors. Steeped in folklore and fantasy, "Troublesome Things" is a rich and diverse account of the part that fairies and fairy stories have played in culture and society. And in learning about these often strange and mysterious creatures, we learn something about ourselves too - our fears and our desires. For while few of us may actually believe that there are fairies at the bottom of our gardens, who can resist clapping their hands just in case?
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Diane Purkiss was formerly Professor of English at Exeter University and is now Fellow and Tutor at Keeble College, Oxford.
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