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Page:Folk-lore - A Quarterly Review. Volume 8, 1897.djvu/58

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36
Presidential Address.

and his contemporaries, but it is based wholly upon evidence they furnish. And if we turn to the bald and scanty notes of English fairy mythology, to which we can with certainty assign a date earlier than the Midsummer Night's Dream, we shall find what may be called the rustic element of the fairy creed insisted upon, proportionately, to a far greater extent than in Shakespeare. Reginald Scot and the few writers who allude to the subject at all ignore entirely the delicate fantastic traits that characterise Shakespeare's elves; they are wanting precisely in what we, with an ideal derived from Shakespeare in our mind, should call the "fairylike" touch; they are rude and coarse and earthy. And, not implicitly but explicitly, a conception of the true nature of these peasant deities found expression in Shakespeare's own days. At the very time the Midsummer Night's Dream was being composed or played, Nash wrote as follows: "The Robin-good-fellows, elfs, fairies, hobgoblins of our latter age, which idolatrous former days and the fantastical world of Greece ycleped Fauns, Satyrs, Dryads, Hamadryads, did most of their pranks in the night"—a passage in which the parallel suggested is far closer and weightier in import than its author imagined.

So far then as regards the popular element in Shakespeare's fairy mythology. In reality it is the same as that testified to by somewhat earlier writers, but touched with the finest spirit alike of grace and of humour, and presented in a form exquisitely poetical. If we seek for the essence of the conception we must needs recognise a series of peasant beliefs and rites of a singularly archaic character. If we further note that, so far as the outward guise and figure of his fairies is concerned, Shakespeare is borne out by a series of testimonies reaching back to the twelfth century Gervase of Tilbury and Gerald the Welshman, who give us glimpses of a world of diminutive and tricky sprites — we need not dwell longer at present upon this aspect of elfland, but can turn to the fay of romance.