If you watch a Disney cartoon with fairies or flick through random images of ‘fairies’ on Google’s image search fairies have one thing in common – wings…
However, traditional accounts do not describe fairies’ wings, though fairies can fly or at least rush from place to place in a moment. Where then do wing’s come from? A crucial moment comes in Pope’s Rape of the Lock (1712), one of the most important eighteenth-century English poems, where AP writes the following lines:
Some to the sun their insect-wings unfold,/. Waft on the breeze, or sink in clouds of gold;/ Transparent forms, too fine for mortal sight.
it would be interesting to know where on earth Pope got this line from.
These words, in any case, gestated and Thomas Stothard, Pope’s late eighteenth-century illustrator showed fairies to have butterfly wings on the basis of this line in 1798: though, in fact, the ‘fairies’ resemble far more the nauseating Italian putti/cherubs of the late Renaissance than they do English fairies as they had been imagined in the previous centuries.
However, there may have been something more general in the air for already in 1790 Fuseli’s Puck showed fairies with bats wings!
Why do we have to wait to the end of the eighteenth century for this? One possibility is that fairies were increasingly accepted and they were being assimilated to Renaissance cherubs as the Renaissance was beginning to take off in the English-speaking world. Another possibility is that as fairies declined in popular culture they were ‘gentrified’ and became more and more like angels.
In any case, the idea shot quickly through our culture to the point where the most recent fairy cartoon, Tinkerbell and the Wings, an entire film is based around the question of flight and there is now a small industry of fairy-wing producers.
However, knowing authors and artists have understood that wings are surplus to requirement. Susan Townsend Warner, for example, in her Kingdoms of Elfin claims that it is not seen as properly fairy to fly and that only commoners would take out their wings! She may have a point and her fairies don’t blink at playing golf… But the wings will out. Twentieth-century fairy sightings often describe beings with wings, something that would never have happened in the nineteenth century.