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Are Fairy Tales Real ?

A Magical Story


In the summer of 1897 Irish poet William Butler Yeats traveled through Galway County with lady Augusta Gregory, her friend and protector, to collect traditional fairy tales from the region. Yeats had already published two collections of tales and legends of his native Sligo. But during this journey he realized that most of the people of the Irish countryside firmly believed in the existence of fairies; for them it was not a question of vague superstitions, but a reality of existence.

Fairies and facts

If Yeats' father was a rationalist, the poet was inclined to believe in the existence of fairies, in reaction to the materialism of the modern world. His work with Lady Gregory convinced him that this faith in the reality of fairies was not reduced to the childish desire to believe in the marvelous.

A few years later, Yeats encouraged orientalist Walter Evans Wentz to study Celtic folklore. In 1911, he published The Fairy - Faith in Celtic Countries, a scholarly sum, fruit of long ground research. In his conclusion, Evans-Wentz wrote that "hundreds of proven cases" proved the reality of the phenomena attributed to the existence of fairies.

Two real fairies

In 1920, Strand Magazine announced on the front page of its Christmas edition: "We photographed fairies! A historical event, described by A. Conan Doyle ". In front of the announced article were the photographs of two young girls sitting in a meadow, in the company of little fairies with translucent wings who were cabrioling around them.

It was not an April fool before the hour. Conan Doyle and his journalist friends were convinced that these photographs proved the existence of little magical beings. The controversy was raging for 60 years.

The two girls, Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths, lived in the village of Cottingley, Yorkshire. They had taken these pictures three years earlier, in 1917, and they did not bother: they had actually photographed real fairies!

A fairy tale

Francis Griffiths, then ten years old, and his mother Annie had settled in April 1917 in Cottingley. Frances later said that she soon realized that there were fairies in the surrounding fields, especially at the edge of the small stream that ran into her garden:

"One evening, after school, I went down to the edge of the stream, to my favorite place, near the willow ... when a leaf of willow began to shake violently - a single leaf. It had already happened before - there was no wind, and it was strange that a single leaf was moving like that ... I looked more closely: a little man, all dressed in green, was posted on the branch ; he held the stem of the leaf in his hand, and he waved it toward something I could not see. I dared not move for fear of frightening him. He looked me straight in the eye and he disappeared."

Frances decided not to say a word to anyone, for fear of ridicule. But as she had fallen several times in the stream, her mother and her aunt demanded explanations, and the girl finally confessed: "I'm going to see the fairies!"

It was then that her cousin Elsie Wright, aged fifteen, took her defense, claiming that she too had seen fairies. Pressed with questions, the two children maintained their assertions.

The camera never lies

One afternoon in July 1917, Elsie borrowed a camera from her father Arthur Wright (a photographic camera). The two girls ran towards the stream, and returned half an hour later. In developing the plaque, Wright found that it was showing Frances lying at the edge of the stream: near her appeared four small human forms, with wings in the back - apparently four fairies who were dancing ...

The story would have been forgotten if, after the war, Elsie's mother, Polly Wright, had not spoken about the photographs at a meeting of the local chapter of the Theosophical Society. Prints soon circulated among Bradford's Theosophists. Edward L. Gardner, who ran the company's London lodge, asked to see the original prints and negatives. He had them examined by a professional photographer, Harold Snelling. The latter told him that the negatives seemed authentic.

Gardner was delighted. In the summer of 1920, he had the pleasure of receiving a letter from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The creator of Sherlock Holmes, then sixty years old, was not a Theosophist, but for many years he had been a follower of spiritualism. The Strand had ordered an article about fairies, and the news of Cottingley's pictures seemed like a gift from heaven.

At the end of July 1920, Edward personally visited the Wright. Although Elsie's father told him that in his opinion the photos were faked, Gardner told Conan Doyle that he was convinced that the girls were telling the truth.

Sensational !

The edition of the Strand caused a sensation; Cottingley's fairies were the main topic of conversation around London's eve tables. The rationalists were scandalized, thus abusing the infantile credulity of the public.

The controversy finally subsided, and for forty years we forgot the girls and their fairies. Elsie married an engineer she followed in India; Frances married a soldier and lived abroad for a long time. Then, in 1965, Daily Express reporter Peter Chambers found Elsie in the Midlands. He was convinced that the photos were faked; Elsie's comment, then sixty years old, that it was up to everyone to express their opinion, only confirmed his suspicions.

In 1976, investigator Joe Cooper made a documentary about the case. He brought Elsie and Frances back to Cottingley. In front of the cameras, the two women recognized the place where Frances had met the gnore. Both categorically denied having falsified the photos.


It all bounced back in 1977. Working on nineteenth-century fairy iconography, a researcher named Fred Gettings came across a book, The Princess Mary's Gift Book, published in 1914 for the Work for Women Fund. It included a poem by Alfred Noyes, "A Spell for a Fairy", illustrated by Claude Shepperson. But two of the fairies drawn by Shepperson looked just like those in Cottingley's first photo.

In September 1981 Frances asked Joe Cooper to come and see her because there was "something he needed to know". And in front of a cup of coffee, she let go: "From where I was, I could see very well the hat pins that held the images. I always marveled that we could take it all seriously."

"And why are you telling me this now?" Asked Cooper stammered. "Because Elsie has already revealed it to Glenn," she replied. "And the other four? They are also fake? "The answer was even more staggering than the confession that had preceded:" Three of them are rigged. But the last is authentic!"

At the end of 1982, Cooper published in The Unexplained an article entitled "Cottingley: finally the truth", in which he revealed that the fairies of the four first photos were cut out images, attached to the branches by hat pins. Frances and Elsie were outraged. When Frances called Cooper's wife on the phone on New Year's Day 1983, it was Cooper who picked it up; she called him a "traitor" and hung up. Frances died in 1986. Elsie assured until her death in 1988 that she had never actually seen fairies.