Keynotes and Activities

The Visit By Moonlight. Fairies encircle a tomb at night in E.T. Parris, 1832. 

* Click on the title in blue of the talk to expand and get a full summary.

Dr Merrick Burrow (Curator of forthcoming Cottingley Fairies exhibition; Head of English, University of Huddersfield)

The Cottingley Fairies: Conan Doyle’s war on materialism

In the December 1920 issue of the Strand Magazine, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published an article heralding the ‘epoch-making’ revelation of photographs of fairies, which he asserted were genuine and authentic. The photographs of the Cottingley fairies, as they came to be known, provoked astonishment, not to mention considerable ridicule. Douglas Kerr, Doyle’s biographer, remarks bluntly that ‘[e]veryone knows Conan Doyle made a fool of himself over the case of the Cottingley fairies’ (Kerr 2013, 234). Kerr’s use of the word ‘case’ suggestively hints at the stark contrast between Conan Doyle’s assessment of the photographs and the verdict one might expect from Sherlock Holmes, upon whose acumen his reputation chiefly rests. A contemporaneous cartoon in Punch magazine made the same point. It depicts Holmes chained by the ankle to his creator, whose head is lost in the clouds. Beneath the cartoon a satirical poem speculates on what ‘that great sleuth’ must make of Conan Doyle’s ‘late defiance . . . of the laws of science’.

In this paper I will try to show that Conan Doyle’s endorsement of the Cottingley fairy photographs was not simply the intellectual slackening of his dotage. He had in fact taken the supernatural seriously throughout the entire period in which he wrote the Sherlock Holmes stories. But when Conan Doyle publicly converted to spiritualism in 1916 he entered into a series of controversies with avowed materialists such as Edward Clodd and Joseph McCabe, who attacked the entirety of psychical research, spiritualism and the paranormal as the domain of frauds and dupes. Conan Doyle’s opinions hardened in response to these polemical assaults on his cherished beliefs. He began to confine himself to debating openly only with like-minded spiritualists. Public discussion of the paranormal, on the other hand, he saw in purely strategic terms. When he encountered the Cottingley fairy photographs Conan Doyle saw an opportunity to ‘draw the fire’ of his opponents. He prepared his article for the Strand, then left to embark on a spiritualist lecture tour of Australia, likening the publication to ‘a time-delay mine’. He fully expected it to cause outrage among his critics, to which he had already prepared his response with a follow-up article and a second set of fairy photographs. Conan Doyle’s interest in the Cottingley fairies was, from the outset, never really a ‘case’ for investigation. It was, rather, a battlefront in his war on materialism.

Merrick Burrow is Principal Lecturer in English Literature at the University of Huddersfield. His research interests are primarily in popular fiction of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. He has published articles and essays on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and is currently writing a book on detective fiction, magic and the history of deception.

Prof. Owen Davies (President of The Folklore Society, University of Hertfordshire)

Print grimoires, spirit conjuration, and the democratisation of learned magic

This paper focuses on two print books that provided instructions for conjuring fairies and other spirits, one from late sixteenth-century England and the other published two centuries later in France. Both reflect the democratising trends in learned magic. Tracing their histories and influences lead us, intriguingly, to Japanese manga, showing how the western learned magic tradition continues its history of adaptation and invention beyond the West, the book, and the learned.

Owen Davies is Professor of Social History at the University of Hertfordshire and the current President of the Folklore Society. Together with Dr Ceri Houlbrook, he founded the only MA in Folklore Studies in England and Wales. He has written widely on the history of witchcraft, magic, ghosts, and popular medicine.

Dr Sam George (Associate Professor of Research, University of Hertfordshire)

Fairy lepidoptera: The dark history of butterfly-winged Fae

Today, fairies are often viewed as benevolent nature spirits, a consolation for modernity or the loss of wild environments, but this has not always been the case. In 1887, Lady Wilde gave voice to the Irish belief that fairies are the fallen angels, cast out of heaven. Fascinated by angels, ghosts, and vampires, Victorians, then Edwardians, saw fairies as souls of the dead. In an age of widespread religious doubt, thought turned to the persistence of the dead and to occult methods of communicating with them, and, rather than dispelling fairies, memories of the dead in WWI heightened a belief in airy spirits and spirit photography.

It was in this climate that the Cottingley fairy photographs emerged in 1917. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s defence of them was influenced by Theosophical views of fairies as evidence of a shadowy spirit world. Dell-dwelling and butterfly-winged, the Cottingley fairies were important too because they seemingly confirmed that fairies were allied to the Lepidoptera or butterfly order (an idea that became an established part of Theosophical thought).

Thomas Stothard’s 1798 illustrations to The Rape of the Lock are reputedly the first to give fairies butterfly wings, establishing a convention. Stothard’s images appear to be derived from putti but he followed his textual source in placing his insect-winged sprites halfway between angels (disembodied) and fairies (embodied). Such butterfly-winged fae provide another link to fairies as spirits of the dead. The butterfly is thought to be the shape assumed by the soul when it leaves the body during sleep or at death. In Joseph Noel Paton’s The Pursuit of Pleasure: A Vision of Human Life (1885), the daughter of Cupid and Psyche, is represented by a fairy with butterfly wings.

Representations of fairies shift from disembodied angels to manifestations as insectile Lepidoptera and shadowy spirits of the dead. In tracing this history, I anticipate ways of thinking about fairies in the present in narratives such as Carnival Row (2019). Here the fae’s insect wings and delicate beauty mask their dark history as fallen and endangered descendants of the Tuatha dé Danann (taking us back to Lady Wilde’s accounts).

Sam George is Associate Professor in Research at the University of Hertfordshire and the convenor of the Open Graves, Open Minds Project. She has published widely on botany, vampires, werewolves, wolf children, Yōkai, and shadows. Her recent publications include the co-edited collection In the Company of Wolves (MUP, 2020) and a ‘Wolves and Wildness’, special issue of Gothic Studies co-edited with Dr Bill Hughes (21.1 (2019)). In 2021 she has published articles on ‘The Black Vampyre’, ‘Vampires, demons and disappearing shadows’ for Gothic Studies, and a piece on Japanese mermaids for a ‘CoronaGothic’ special issue of Critical Quarterly. She is currently leading an impact case study on ethical gothic, researching a book on Fairies for the Bloomsbury ‘Monsters and Marvels’ Series and co-editing a book on John Polidori with Dr Bill Hughes. Her latest monograph, In the Kingdom of Shadows; Optics, Dark Folklore and the Gothic in the Literature of the Long Nineteenth century, is forthcoming for 2022.

Dr Ivan Phillips (Associate Dean, School of Creative Arts, University of Hertfordshire)

What the Puck! or: An anatomy of the fairy – A spotter’s guide to wings, wands and other distractions

‘Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.’
W. B. Yeats, ‘The Stolen Child’ (1889)

The networked digital realm of the twenty-first century seems to have a very clear sense of what fairies look like. Type ‘fairy’ into a Google Image search and your screen will become busy with diaphanous wings, drifting, delicate fabrics, long hair, flowers and stars. Fairies, it seems, are tiny female figures caught somewhere between childhood and young adulthood, their apparent infant innocence disturbingly at odds with more sexualised connotations. Fairies are invariably Caucasian, and they conform to received European ideals of beauty. None of this is surprising, of course, and the Oxford English Dictionary confirms the modern paradigm of ‘a being having the form of a tiny, delicate, and beautiful girl or young woman, usually with insect-like wings’. This is the fairy as Disney’s (rather than J. M. Barrie’s) Tinker Bell, a version of Silky from Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree novels, the fairy that comes to us via Edmund Dulac, Arthur Rackham, Luis Ricardo Falero, and C. E. Brock, emerging in the best-selling tales of the Rainbow Magic series, published by Orchard Books and illustrated by Georgie Ripper. It is a wonderful thing and strangely terrifying. It comes with a cooption of the fae into narratives of social prejudice and limitation (‘fairy’ is still used as an offensive term to describe an ‘effeminate’ man, ‘fairy tale’ is still a shorthand for a far-fetched or flimsy story, a story for children – an ‘inferior’ story, in other words . . .)

This paper considers the cultural petrification of this most indeterminate of mythical beings, arguing that the subversive potential of the fairy – its ability to enact real mischief on our moral and behavioural assumptions – has been lost in nostalgic clouds of stardust. Reflecting on Rosemary Jackson’s claim that the dominance of a certain form of imaginative conservatism has subdued the radical energies of folkloric fantasy in recent centuries, it focuses on alternative fairy designs as instances of more disruptive narratives, from the art of William Blake and Dorothea Tanning to Guillermo del Toro’s film Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) and the ‘Small Words’ episode of the BBC TV series Torchwood (2007). Seeing these as representative of a countertradition of fairy stories – typified by the work of such authors as Hope Mirrlees, Julie Kagawa, and Neil Gaiman – it asserts the importance of a more complex, sophisticated typology of the fairy in an age when our children continue, as in Yeats’s poem, to spend time in their company in a world that’s full of weeping.

Ivan Phillips is Associate Dean (Learning and Teaching) in the School of Creative Arts at the University of Hertfordshire. Since completing a PhD on the poetry of Paul Muldoon at the University of Wales, Swansea, in 1998, he has written for The Times Literary Supplement, Critical Studies in Television, The Journal of Wyndham Lewis Studies, The Conversation and HuffPost, and published on subjects ranging from Thomas Chatterton to Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera. A contributor to Sam George and Bill Hughes’ Open Graves, Open Minds: Representations of Vampires and the Undead from the Enlightenment to the Present (Manchester University Press, 2013) and In The Company of Wolves: Werewolves, Wolves and Wild Children (Manchester: Manchester University Press, forthcoming), he has also written chapters for Paul Booth’s Fan Phenomena: Doctor Who (Intellect, 2013) and Andrzej Gąsiorek and Nathan Waddell’s Wyndham Lewis: A Critical Guide (University of Edinburgh Press, 2015). His book Once Upon A Time: The Myths and Stories of Doctor Who was published by Bloomsbury in 2020.

Prof. Diane Purkiss (Keble College, Oxford)

Where do fairies come from? Shifts in shape

Focusing on fairies in anomalous witch trials leads us into a wild world of hybrid and creolised cultures which can be identified, but not traced, and which often exceed and disconcert the expectations of everybody involved, including historians. Even to attempt to speak of such things is to risk instant dismissal. But while secure knowledge is impossible, tentative identification is essential. When a demon called Christsunday transforms into a black stag that rises out of the snow, that is a clue – that is, a thread to take us through a labyrinth – to the Gaelic and Norse substrates that are fitfully visible in the southern witch trials of shapeshifting witches. This is a kind of magic usually linked verbally with fairies, who are in turn metonymically associated with dealings with the dead, and with a subliminal ghost world of powers to know and to heal. These powers might involve shifts in shape, for what is a sick body but a deformed healthy body? If we don’t dare to reconstruct such patterns, we will begin to miss or pass over important evidence; when Keith Thomas associates to women cooking pancakes over beds to with simple poverty, what ritual associations are obscured? When we learn that the witches of Maidstone used a piece of meat from an unspecified source for divination, how far are classical models of divination still in play as late as the mid-seventeenth century. This paper is therefore the beginning of a journey. Let’s begin, and go into the dark together.

Diane Purkiss is Professor of English Literature at the University of Oxford, and fellow and tutor at Keble College. She has published widely on witches, fairies, ghosts, and the early modern supernatural, and has also written books on the English Civil War. A history of English food is in press with William Collins. Recently she has organised a series of knowledge exchange events on the connections between magic and place; the next of these will be an international conference that will look at Northern Europe (Scandinavia and the British Isles) in comparison with the Americas, particularly hybridised cultures of magic that join indigenous peoples with European colonisers.

Prof. Catherine Spooner (Lancaster University)

Glamourie: Fairies and fashion

The word ‘glamour’ derives from an old Scottish word meaning a ‘the supposed influence of a charm on the eye, causing it to see objects differently from what they really are. Hence to cast glamer o’er one, to cause deception of sight’ (Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language, 1879). Our modern understanding of the concept of ‘glamour’, as a sophisticated form of allure, is thus deeply rooted in fairy lore. This has two implications. On the one hand, ‘glamour’ enables the expression of misogynistic fantasies about feminine artifice and the underlying horror of the female body; on the other, it awards women (and some men) a transformational power and implies a metamorphic body that may erode the boundaries between the human and the natural world. In this paper, I will examine how the transformational magic of the glamour informs both traditional accounts of fairy encounters from ‘Thomas and the Fairy Queen’ to ‘Cinderella’ and the work of contemporary fashion designers and photographers such as Alexander McQueen and Tim Walker. Drawing on Marina Warner’s assertion that ‘More so than the presence of fairies… metamorphosis defines the fairy tale’ (1995, pp. xv-xvi), I will show how the metamorphic body is a fairy residue that continues to inform fashion even when the fairy itself has faded from sight.

Catherine Spooner is Professor of Literature and Culture at Lancaster University. She has published widely on Gothic in Victorian and contemporary literature, film and popular culture, with a particular emphasis on fashion. Her six books include Fashioning Gothic Bodies, Contemporary Gothic and The Routledge Companion to Gothic. Her most recent book, Post-millennial Gothic: Comedy, Romance and the Rise of Happy Gothic, was the outcome of an AHRC Research Fellowship and was awarded the Allan Lloyd Smith Memorial Prize for advancing the field of Gothic Studies in 2019. She makes regular media appearances and has featured on shows including BBC Breakfast, BBC Radio 3’s Free Thinking, the BBC World Service’s The Why Factor and The Steve Lamacq Show on BBC Radio 6 Music. She was co-president of the International Gothic Association 2013-17.

Prof. Dale Townshend (Manchester Metropolitan University)

“The fairy kind of writing”: Gothic and the aesthetics of enchantment in the long eighteenth century

Long before it came be distinguished by the responses of horror and terror, the Gothic was perceived as the enchanted and enchanting aesthetic of the fairy realm. Proceeding with an account of which the ways in which such early Whig aestheticians as William Temple, John Dennis and Anthony Ashley Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury, conceptualised the British nation’s ‘Gothick’ literary inheritance, this lecture explores the mutual imbrications of enchantment and the Gothic across the long eighteenth century (c. 1680–1810). As it proceeds, it explores such texts as John Dryden’s King Arthur; or, The British Worthy (1691); Joseph Addison’s contributions to The Spectator in 1712; the reception of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the 1760s; the romances and poetry of Ann Radcliffe; the British reception of Christoph Martin Wieland’s Oberon (1780–96); and Matthew Gregory Lewis’s ‘Oberon’s Henchman; or, The Legend of the Three Sisters’ (1808). In so doing, it seeks to articulate the ‘anatomy’ of Gothic enchantment in the period, describing its various forms, guises, manifestations and effects. As the paper concludes, the Gothic enchantments of the fairies in these and other texts invariably take precedence over notions of horror and terror, that critical distinction that, though certainly present earlier, only really took cultural and critical effect after the posthumous publication of Ann Radcliffe’s essay ‘On the Supernatural in Poetry’ in 1826.

Dale Townshend is Professor of Gothic Literature in the Centre for Gothic Studies at Manchester Metropolitan University. His most recent publications include the monograph Gothic Antiquity: History, Romance, and the Architectural Imagination, 1760–1840 (OUP, 2019) and the three-volume The Cambridge History of the Gothic (2020–21), co-edited with Angela Wright and Catherine Spooner. He is currently working on a monograph on Matthew Gregory Lewis for the University of Wales Press, and, with Elizabeth Bobbitt, co-editing the posthumous works of Ann Radcliffe for The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Ann Radcliffe.

Dr Maisha Wester (Indiana University; Global Professorship Fellowship, University of Sheffield) 

Precious revisions of greedy glass bottle tricks: Nalo Hopkinson’s folkloric revisions of classic fairytales and myths

Nalo Hopkinson’s collection Skin Folk is a rich trove of stories, some of which present new monsters while others revise old fairy tales to reveal the horrors threatening modern Black existence. This talk will focus on two of her stories – ‘The Glass Bottle Trick’ and ‘Greedy Choke Puppy’ – which confront the problems of assimilating to bourgeois white Western ideology. In both cases, monstrosity arises not from difference but rather from embracing a destructive, materialist ideology which normalises excess consumption, colourism, and social stratification.

Maisha Wester is a British Academy Global Professor hosted at the University of Sheffield. She is also an Associate professor of American Studies at Indiana University. She is author of African American Gothic: Screams from Shadowed Places, co-editor of Twenty-First Century Gothic and author of numerous articles and essays. Her research focuses on racial discourses in Horror Film and Gothic literature, and on sociopolitical appropriations of Gothic and Horror tropes in racial discourses.

The YA fantasy writer Betsy Cornwell (TidesMechanicaVenturess) will speak about the creative adaptation of fairy lore in her novels.

The creative adaptation of fairy lore

Betsy will read selections from her novels Tides, Venturess, and The Circus Rose, as well as and discuss their exploration of gender and the gothic through a fairy-tale lens. She will also share her current research into Irish fairy tales toward writing a hybrid memoir about the old knitting factory where she lives.

Betsy Cornwell is a New York Times bestselling author of queer, lyrical, young adult fantasy novels. She is also the story editor at Parabola Magazine and teaches creative writing at the National University of Ireland Galway. She is currently renovating an old knitting factory in west Ireland into an arts residency for single moms. You can find more about her work at or @betsycornwell

The conference will also feature an Outreach Workshop for postgraduate students and ECRs with Dr Ceri Houlbrook (University of Hertfordshire; Magical Folk: British and Irish Fairies: 500 AD to the Present (2018; with Simon Young)).

Outreach Workshop: The folklore of Boggart Hole Clough

In this workshop, Ceri will be exploring outreach opportunities for postgraduate and early career researchers, drawing on her experiences working on the folklore of Boggart Hole Clough, an inner-city park in Manchester.

Dr Ceri Houlbrook is a Folklore and History Lecturer at the University of Hertfordshire, currently lecturing on the Folklore Studies MA. Her primary research interests are contemporary British folklore and the material culture of ritual practices. She has published on the modern-day phenomena of coin-trees, The Roots of a Ritual, and love-locks, Unlocking the Love-Lock.

There will be fairy-themed activities including a fairy flash fiction writing competition, a Gothic faerie makeover contest, and a Wings and Wine social.