Cover image for At the bottom of the garden : a dark history of fairies, hobgoblins, and other troublesome things
At the bottom of the garden : a dark history of fairies, hobgoblins, and other troublesome things
Purkiss, Diane, 1961-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : New York University Press, [2000]

Physical Description:
xii, 356 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
Format :


Call Number
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Item Holds
BF1552 .P87 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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At the Bottom of the Garden is a history of fairies from the ancient world to the present. Steeped in folklore and fantasy, it is a rich and diverse account of the part that fairies and fairy stories have played in culture and society.

The pretty pastel world of gauzy-winged things who grant wishes and make dreams come true--as brought to you by Disney's fairies flitting across a woodland glade, or Tinkerbell's magic wand--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 Diane Purkiss explains in this engrossing history, ancient fairies were born of fear: fear of the dark, of death, and of 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.

This book begins with the earliest manifestations of fairies in ancient civilizations of the Mediterranean. The child-killing demons and nymphs of these cultures are the joint ancestors of the medieval fairies of northern 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 theater stage and the pages of children's books to reappear a century later as detergent trade marks and alien abductors. In learning about these often strange and mysterious creatures, we learn something about ourselves--our fears and our desires.

Author Notes

Diane Purkiss is Fellow and Tutor at Keble College, Oxford

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

Anyone who has ever thought that fairies are "tiresome little wingy thingies who are always good" will be swiftly disabused of that notion by this historical study. A British author (The Witch in History) and currently a fellow and tutor at Keble College, Oxford, Purkiss has prodigiously researched her subject, producing a scholarly overview of the role that fairies have played in culture from the past to the present. As she explains with relish, fairies before Shakespeare's time were believed to be dangerous beings whose origins probably date back not to Celtic myth, as is often believed, but to ancient Mediterranean civilizations. They were associated with the dead and in ancient and medieval societies were thought to be responsible for the murder of infants and the abduction of adults through sexual conquest. Purkiss recounts many harrowing stories of stillbirth, infanticide, illness and rape that were thought to be the work of fairies. Essentially the fairy concept provided a way for people to explain their deepest fears. However, in the 17th century, fairies began to be viewed as magical beings who could bring wealth to a lucky recipient. For example, in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, the fairy Puck symbolizes the transition from fairies as evildoers to prankish but essentially good beings. Later the Victorians believed fairies were asexual beings and representative of childhood innocence. Although fairies are a popular subject among New Age readers today, Purkiss's book is better suited for serious researchers of popular beliefs and culture. 20 b&w photos. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved All rights reserved.

Choice Review

Author of studies on witchcraft and women in the Renaissance, Purkiss (English, Oxford) opens this fascinating history with an account of child-killing demons, changelings, fauns, gorgons, and nymphs in the ancient world--claiming these, not the Celts, as the source of the belief in fairies. The author defines a fairy as "someone who appears at and governs the big crises of mortal life: birth, childhood and its transitions, adolescence, sexual awakening, pregnancy and childbirth, old age, death.... She is a gatekeeper, and offers the dual promise of bliss and terror." This definition is expansive enough to include the Green Knight, the Fairy Queen, Tam Lin, Scottish and Welsh fairies, brownies, Shakespeare's Puck and Oberon, Christina Rossetti's "Goblin Market," Tinkerbell, and characters created by such authors as Yeats, Ransome, Kipling, and Bradley. Even the Tooth Fairy is included! Perhaps most compelling is Purkis's postcolonial analysis of the connections between the beginnings of the slave trade and the belief in fairies. Rigorously researched, the book is written in a style that is unorthodox for academic studies, and hence is at once disarming and disconcerting. Numerous illustrations enhance the volume; the lack of a bibliography is disappointing, but this may have been the press's choice, not the author's. Highly recommended for all collections. E. R. Baer Gustavus Adolphus College

Table of Contents

List of Illustrationsp. ix
Acknowledgementsp. xi
Introduction: Fear of Fairiesp. 1
1. Ancient Worldsp. 11
2. Medieval Dreamsp. 52
Early Modern Fairies
3. Birth and Death: Fairies in Scottish Witch-trialsp. 85
4. Desire of Gold and the Good Neighbours: The Uses of Fairiesp. 116
5. The Fairy Goes Literary: Puck and Othersp. 158
6. Into the Enlightenmentp. 194
7. Victorian Fairiesp. 220
8. Tinker Bell's Magic and the Fairies' Call to Warp. 265
9. Photographing Fairies, and a Celtic Revivalp. 284
10. Fairy Bubbles and Alien Abductionsp. 304
Notesp. 323
Indexp. 349