Thursday, July 24, 2014

Seeing Fairies by Marjorie T. Johnson: A Review

I don't normally write or comment on material that does not appear in Chinese or that does not directly pertain to Chinese folklore. However, I've recently come across a very engaging book--an anthology of four hundred or so individual memorates, first-hand accounts of encounters with the traditional anomalous entities of Western, primarily British folklore--collected by the late Marjorie T. Johnson and only recently published. It comes with both a warm and informative introduction that explains Miss Johnson's background, introduces some of her acquaintances and prepares the reader for the amazing journey he/she is about to take. The collection itself had been translated into German and now appears years later in its original English, some four years after the death of Marjorie T. Johnson at the age of 100. Much of the material she collected, some of which was written down as late as the 1990s, shows an uncanny similarity to memorates that are still recorded today in Taiwan, namely run-ins with what we in the West would call fairies, elves, gnomes, elementals, and so on, and what Taiwanese and residents of Southeastern China (e.g, Fujian Province) would call shanjing (山精, or "mountain changelings, entities etc."), among other names. But more about the similarities between Western and Chinese sightings of inexplicable creatures later.

Nearly all the memorates come from residents of the British Isles and from expatriate Britons in Australia, Canada, and outside the Anglosphere.  One story comes from Germany, of all places, where an English schoolgirl in a German boarding school between the wars hears ethereal music and traces it to its source, a troop of "gnomes" treading around a tree in the snow. Her headmistress, a German baroness, confirms that, yes, such entities exist. Most of the stories are about encounters in the forest with beings that range from mere inches high to nearly a couple of feet tall; winged or wingless; most often fully clothed, often with mushroom or acorn-shaped hats; with anything from cheerful, ruddy faces to wizened and sometimes displeased countenances from those elementals that had not counted on being disturbed by those in our realm. The encounters often occur on excursions into the English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish countrysides. Sometimes the beings are seen inside buildings, such as old farmhouses. For the most part, the visitations are innocuous and all are, of course, bizarre; yet, with a number of them, there is more than just a tinge of hinted malevolence. Cases in point: (1) the Irish informant who comes across a field of thousands of fairies, many of whom have "pleasant faces" but who also apparently seek to lead him away; (2) the English soldier stationed at his Dublin base on guard duty one evening who is unnerved by the sight of a flying woman in white; and (3) the eight year old girl who, in her home,  glimpses what could only be called "gnomes" who had been hiding underneath a table covered by a tablecloth and who, perhaps in a manner that is a little too friendly, beckon to her, causing her to flee upstairs. The subtext I  receive from these accounts is it is better to leave well enough alone!

And who are the folks who have, in these accounts that span many decades, made these sightings? They run the gamut from small children to mature adults, from homemakers to retired military officers to clergymen. A number are from Marjorie T. Johnson herself; indeed, the cover photograph of the book shows a youthful Marjorie playing the panpipes in a forest as a fairy or other entity slowly materializes from a mist. The vast majority seem to be British or of British extraction. In short, they apparently could be anyone's neighbors, friends or relatives. They could be anyone reading this blog. The informants come across as credible, likable, and, in some cases, reluctant to sound foolish. A few seem to be Theosophists, while many others reveal nothing about their religious orientation. Many are adults recalling the encounters they had as children. Their accounts made me remember something I myself saw as a six year old, sitting one night, for some weird reason, in my darkened room with the door open, revealing the lit hallway. I remember seeing a black and white cat make a mad dash down the hallway past the open door, and heading to my left. I ran out the door and scoured the hallway, looking for this cat. What boy or girl wouldn't? When asked where the cat was, my amused parents, reading the evening newspaper, merely smiled. We didn't have a cat. Childhood exuberance? over imagination? Perhaps. I remember it as if it were yesterday. Marjorie T. Johnson could have recorded such a story.

From the aspect of psychology, this is what I find most fascinating: Why would otherwise ordinary people, those who are not apparently ingesting hallucinogenics or drinking themselves into a delirious state, see these beings? Years ago I read some commentary on the folklore of Ulster Scots (what Americans call the "Scots-Irish"), those of Scottish descent and who preserve some Scottish identity but who were born in Ireland, in which the writer laughed at the idea of an Ulster church elder, for example, seeing a leprechaun. Yet, Miss Johnson's book is a compilation of hundreds of such stories from people who had likewise probably never dreamed they would ever see anything like a fairy flitting around the forest or elves hiding under leaves. Though seeing entities is not necessarily an illness or maybe even a mental condition per se, is the frequency with which one sees fairies, elementals, and ghosts a culture-bound or specific condition highly tolerated among some groups than others, nurtured and tacitly encouraged throughout the centuries? I don't have an answer; each person can come to his or her own conclusion. I think of my own three Scottish, Scottish-Canadian grandparents, "low kirk" people, and cannot entertain that they would have ever admitted to seeing fairies. Yet . . .  Today in Taiwan there are those that likewise still claim to have brushes with remarkable beings--grandmothers lost in the forests who are nurtured by strange entities of legend and folktales; mountain climbers and hikers who have seen the malicious humanoid sprites that, like fairies, may deliberately lead travelers astray, often permanently; and little girls/women in red who show up on hiking excursions who then fatally infect someone. Many people in Taiwan would be loath to having their names or identities attached to such reports, yet they still occur, as a perusal of the online Chinese press reveals. Marjorie T. Johnson's book as well as Chinese-language memorates on modern sightings of inexplicable beings reminds us that a worldwide phenomenon is still ongoing, still puzzling and perplexing all who come face-to-face with it; that it may be part and parcel of the human experience and does not discriminate according to geography and ethnicity; that it might be something innate within humans or that it could be symptomatic about all that which Jacques Vallee has written about since his Passport to Magonia, the shaping, conditioning of human society for a purpose which is currently beyond our ken.

Seeing Fairies: From the Lost Archives of the Fairy Investigation Society, Authentic Reports of Fairies in Modern Times by Marjorie T. Johnson is published by Anomalist Books of San Antonio and Charlottesville. Seeing Fairies is a boon to the scholarship on folklore. I highly recommend it for anyone interested in psychology, anthropology and parapsychology.

For Chinese/Taiwanese stories of strange entities, see my posts for 12/24/13 and 6/29/14. 

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