Did you know the Oompa Loompas were originally black?
Yes; in the first edition of Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, readers were given to understand that the fantastic workforce of little men in Willy Wonka's factory were, quite simply, African slaves. One biographer explains that, "In the version first published, [the Oompa–Loompas were] a tribe of 3,000 amiable black pygmies who have been imported by Mr. Willy Wonka from 'the very deepest and darkest part of the African jungle where no white man had been before.' Mr. Wonka keeps them in the factory, where they have replaced the sacked white workers. Wonka's little slaves are delighted with their new circumstances, and particularly with their diet of chocolate. Before they lived on green caterpillars, beetles, eucalyptus leaves, 'and the bark of the bong–bong tree.'"
Written in 1964, it wasn't until 1972 (after some important cultural shifts) that Charlie and the Chocolate Factory began to receive criticism for the colonialist aspect of its narrative. After much correspondence between the author and his critics on the issue, Dahl and his publisher decided to print a new edition of the novel, in which the Oompa Loompas were described as dwarfish beings with "golden-brown hair" and "rosy-white" skin.
In their characterization of the novel, Dahl's editors 'saw the story as essentially Victorian in character –– a 'very English fantasy'." Our question for today is, What exactly did they mean by that? What do African pygmies have to do with "English Fantasy?"
Many of the more passionate dabblers in folklore on the Web, when attempting to present British fairy tales in a serious way, will tend to start by asking the reader to completely disregard Victorian age, Peter and Wendy notions of Elfland. (Some intimidating phrases in ancient Irish usually follow soon after.) These same individuals will sometimes point us to the more tragic or frightening Victorian fantasy literature as examples of the "real deal," seemingly unaware that these stories are often themselves altered from the original material. The collectors (and redactors) of fairy tales in this era did not consider themselves the "folk" of folklore, and they were not normally interested in accepting folk legend as it was. British academics and aristocrats saw fairy belief as a primitive cipher that held the secrets to the (surely debauched!) origins of civilization and the human species - a mystery that the Victorians were particularly obsessed with. And they were obsessed, for reasons that are quite relevant to what I feel is the key to understanding "Faerie," and why it matters to people like you and me.
The evolution of this memeplex is easily illustrated in the career of one man: French-American explorer, Paul du Chaillu. Modern pagans might know him best for The Viking Age, an early study on the pre-history of Northern Europe. He also happened to be a member of J.M. Barrie's amateur cricket team. But two decades earlier, he had been traversing lands virtually unknown. In 1865, on an excursion through Central Africa, he was informed by his Ashango hosts of a tribe of little men living in the forests. Earlier in his career, du Chaillu was the first European to confirm the existence of the gorilla, presumed to have been entirely mythical by previous explorers. Well-informed by this experience, he decided to investigate the claims of his guides. He published a chronicle of this journey in 1872, called The Country of Dwarfs, in which he recounts his first sighting of a deserted pygmy encampment:
EARLY the next morning we started again on our journey through the great forest, passing many hills and several rivulets with queer names. Suddenly we came upon twelve strange little houses scattered at random, and I stopped and asked Kombila for what use those shelters were built. He answered, "Spirit, those, are the house of a small people called Obongos."There are some noticeable parallels here between this description of the Obongos and that of Dahl's Oompa Loompas; of a people who dine on the small, crawling things of the forest and the fruits of the trees. One can imagine how du Chaillu's curiosity would have been piqued. When he asks if he is in "the country of the Dwarfs," I don't think it would be unreasonable to assume that he was wondering if he'd fallen right down the rabbit hole:
"What!" said I, thinking that I had not understood him.
"Yes," repeated Kombila, "the people who live in such a shelter can talk, and they build fires."
"Kombila," I replied, "why do you tell me a story? How can people live in such little places? These little houses have been built for idols. Look," said I, "at those little doors. Even a child must crawl on the ground to get into them."
"No," said Kombila, "the Dwarfs have built them."
"How can that be?" I asked; "for where are the Dwarfs now? There are no plantain-trees around; there are no fires, no cooking-pots, no water jugs."
"Oh," said Kombila, "those Obongos are strange people. They never stay long in the same place. They cook on charcoal. They drink with their hands, or with large leaves."
"Then," I answered, "do you mean to say that we are in the country of the Dwarfs?"
"Yes," said Kombila, "we are in the country of the Dwarfs. They are scattered in the forest. Their little villages, like the one you see before you, are far apart. They are as wild as the antelope, and roam in the forest from place to place. They are like the beasts of the fields. They feed on the serpents, rats and mice, and on the berries and nuts of the forest."
"That can not be," I said.
"Yes, Oguizi, this is so," replied the porters. "Look for yourself;" and they pointed to the huts.
"Is it possible," I asked myself, "that there are people so small that they can live in such small buildings as those before me?"
These huts did really look like the habitations of men—the homes of a race of Dwarfs. But had Kombila told me a falsehood? Were not these huts built for the fetiches and idols? It was true the great historian Herodotus had described a nation of Dwarfs as living on the head waters of the Nile; Homer had spoken of the cranes and of the land of the Pigmies; and Strabo thought that certain little men of Ethiopia were the original Dwarfs, while Pomponius Mela placed them far south, and, like Homer, spoke of their fighting with cranes; but then nobody had believed these stories. Could it be possible that I had discovered these people, spoken of thousands of years before, just as I had come face to face with the gorilla, which Hanno had described many centuries before?With the help of his guides, and a bit of rudeness (yanking old women out of their homes by the ankle is less than diplomatic), du Chaillu was rewarded with the discovery of a settlement of an Obongo tribe deep in the woods. He marveled at their size, comparing the children to dogs and cats. "What a sight! I had never seen the like. 'What!' said I, 'now I do see the Dwarfs of Equatorial Africa—the Dwarfs of Homer, Herodotus—the Dwarfs of the ancients.'" Clearly, du Chaillu felt that myth had become reality.
However, rather than demystifying these newly (re)discovered humans, as one might expect, the intellectual elite in Europe responded to this revelation by reinvesting little people, foreigners, the disabled, the lower class, the deformed, the nomadic, and others in their vicinity and beyond with an alien quality. To them, this was not evidence that the elfin races of legend were merely humans; this was proof of the existence of individuals who were other than human.
At a time when the fields such as archaeology, ethnology, and genetics were only just coming into being, the theory of polygenesis provided a ready outlet for numberless treaties by euhemerists on the history of humanity as told - supposedly - through the cultural fables passed down from working-class governess to highborn child. Many historians began to posit that "black, red and yellow" pygmies had once inhabited the British Isles and Germanic countries, fueling stories about "little men" and explaining what they saw as the genetic inferiority of other, non-Anglo ethnic groups. Tales of fairy abduction and marriages to mortals were thought to be cultural memories of interracial (read: interspecies) breeding, giving rise to the mentally disabled "Mongoloid" or the "Negroid" Irishman. (Remember that the English considered themselves purely Anglo-Saxon, ethnically distinct from the other nations of Great Britain. Except when they were talking about King Arthur. Then they were Britons again.) Why expend so much energy on denying a common evolutionary ancestor between the noble Englishman and the barbarians he was subduing in the name of the Empire? I'm sure the answer is self-evident. Yet, beyond the motivation of politics, there lay a pervasive fear of evolutionary regression and subsequent social collapse. Barbarians at the gate, degenerates in the street - threats loomed from within and without. This was reflected in the fantasy fiction of the time.
Previously in literature and fairy tales, elves and dwarves were often skilled tradesmen, sometimes wise, sometimes foolish and vulnerable (or both.) Not a far cry from their ancient Norse antecedents, who, while not always beneficent, were hardly bestial. In the Victorian age, even supposedly sympathetic stories of actual "dwarves" (that is, individuals with dwarfism) began to paint them as primitive, pitiable, sub-human creatures. Elsewhere, they became absolutely monstrous. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the popular novels of Golden Dawn magician, Arthur Machen. A major influence on H.P. Lovecraft's signature style of horror, Machen drew on these themes to chilling effect in his supernatural fantasies. Carol G. Silver summarizes a memorable example:
At the center and of an interpolated novella called "The Novel of the Black Seal," is Professor Gregg, an ethnologist of the euhemerist school, who believes the "stories of mothers who have left a child quietly sleeping . . . and have returned, not to find the plump and rosy little Saxon, but a thin and wizened creature with sallow skin and black piercing eyes, the child of another race." The professor is in search of the originals of the Welsh fairies, a mysterious and evil "race which had fallen out of the grand march of evolution." Thus, hearing that strange-looking, dark-haired, olive-skinned Jervase is thought to be a changeling, he hires him as a servant. Although the adolescent Jervase is actually a hybrid (his mother is a local working-class woman), he exhibits all the attributes folklorists ascribed to fairy changelings. He is "mentally weak," "a natural. . . who, has fits at times." When he has a seizure, his face swells and blackens, he froths at the lips, and he squeals in a queer, hissing "half-sibilant, half-gutteral" voice," mouthing a jargon a local expert associates with the Welsh fairies.Lest one should protest that he was simply using a popular theory for a plot device, Machen reveals quite clearly in Dreads and Drolls his faith in the notion that "a short, non-Aryan race" once haunted the hills and forests of England. This motif is repeated in his novellas "The Red Hand" and "The Shining Pyramid," in which misshapen creatures, "things made in the form of men but stunted like children and hideously deformed," scurry about the dark places of the earth, hunting the innocent and preying on their flesh, offering them up to their infernal gods. The fear of ancient horrors wakening unto life and feeding on the blood and souls of white protagonists - that occult terror that we now call "Lovecraftian" - has a direct line of descent to the Victorian fear of Faerie's uncivilized denizens. And yet, a well-to-do Londoner didn't even have to leave the city limits to have an encounter with the Other World; all she had to do was find herself accosted by a street merchant with dark, cunning eyes.
When the professor, who is convinced that supernatural and magical powers are really "survivals from the depths of being"—that is, reversions to lower evolutionary forms of life — subjects Jervase to "scientific" tests, he discovers a horrible secret. He watches the boy, possessed by his brute nature, literally slither down the ladder of evolution to reveal a hideous reptile within. While the professor goes off to find the "Little People" and does not return, Jervase, feeble-minded and diseased, remains in the mortal world as a changeling proof of evolutionary regression, an example of "Protoplasmic Reversion."
All this is not to suggest that a fear of the Other was absent in traditional fairy belief. I think it would be disingenuous to overlook the fact that it was used as a tool of social control in Celtic communities as well; a way to keep the young people in at night, a way to quietly dispose of unfit children and uppity women. Disobedience or sudden changes in behavior were often explained by fairy abduction, the disruptive individual being treated as an Otherworldly imposter to be exorcised, abandoned, or slain. A notorious example is the case of Bridget Cleary, a stylish young seamstress who, in 1895, was accused by her husband of being a changeling. A childless woman, she was known to go out riding alone (against her husband's wishes) in areas believed to be fairy haunts, and was considered "a bit queer" by others in her community. (A side note: 1895 was the year of the first known usage of the word "fairy" to mean homosexual.) Considering the triple threat of her infertility, her financial independence, and her suspicious behavior, Bridget's persecution as a changeling might be seen as a mere eventuality.
Michael Cleary believed (or wanted to believe) that his "real" wife would reappear once he had disposed of the changeling. This, he hoped to accomplish by burning her alive, ignoring the desperate pleas of his neighbors. Yet, reflected in the haunting words he spoke moments before the flames engulfed her - "I believe that she is dead" - there is a distinct possibility that Michael feared that Bridget had chosen to abandon him. Michael was nine years older than Bridget, and they hadn't dwelt together in the same house for the first few years of their marriage. And again, they had no children. He may have suspected that Bridget had a paramour, whether mortal or fairy, waiting for her at the rath. Lisa Spangenberg puts it more succintly than I can: "Just as with other Others, say Gypsies, or whatever a given community's racial/ethnic minority is, or queers, in stories about fairies and otherworld intruders it's a case of 'They want our women, and our children, and our women want sex/more sex/better sex, and so they voluntarily go with these Others, and leave us, and sometimes, they refuse to come back." This is as evident in medieval material as it is anywhere else.
One interesting perspective on this anxiety can be found in the medieval Scottish ballad, "Tam Lin." The story begins with a warning to young women about the woods of Carterhaugh, where Tam Lin dwells. He is a fairy, who they say will rob or ravish any maiden who steps foot in his forest. "There's nane that gaes by Carterhaugh/But they leave him a wad/Either their rings, or green mantles/Or else their maidenhead."
Then, we are introduced to young Janet, who thinks that sounds like her idea of a party. She throws on a green frock, marches right into those woods, and picks a rose growing near the well where he has hitched his horse. Tam Lin appears, and he demands to know why she is there without his permission, and why she has stolen from him. She replies that she owns Carterhaugh by way of her father, and will go where she pleases. Then we find her back home, pregnant. A patronizing old knight confronts her, saying that he will marry her and "take the blame," that is, for her state. She refuses, indignant. Her father gently chides her, but she is adamant. She proclaims that her true love, the father of her child, is "an elfin grey," and that she won't accept any other man as her husband.
She makes her way back to Carterhaugh, and asks Tam Lin if he was ever a mortal man. And indeed he was; he tells her of how he was abducted by the Fairy Queen while out on the hunt. "Pleasant is the fairy land," he says, but every seven years a tithe is paid to Hell. Tam Lin confesses his fear that he, being "so fair and full of flesh," will be the next sacrifice. The rest of the story deals with Janet's daring rescue of Tam Lin on Hallowe'en night, pulling him away from the Wild Ride and clasping him tight as the fairies transform him into several monstrous shapes. She holds him fast. At last he takes the form of a great burning coal and, following his previous instructions, Janet throws him into the well. He emerges naked from the water, and she covers him in her cloak, whisking him away.
Here we have a story in which a mortal woman - presumably an "innocent" - actively seeks out what she is meant to fear. What she finds is not a marauding rapist, but a reasonable man, who, if anything, might be said to feel threatened by her presence. Asserting herself, she gets what she came for. She refuses to cry rape, and asserts her agency in having chosen a lover. And she doesn't choose to simply run away with him. She does everything in her power to legitimize her Baby Daddy and return him to society, so that he can be recognized by the community as the man she has chosen. At the risk of sounding obvious, she has integrated the Other.
Green is the color that most of us associate with elves and fairies. Allowing for some variances by culture and region, this is reasonably in line with tradition. "Janet has kilted her green kirtle" is the first line of the ballad's chorus, a "kirtle" being a kind of tunic, worn as a layer between the chemise and smock. Aside from being an invitation to him, this might be thought of as symbolic of her affinity with the eldritch knight. While grey is the color that Janet ascribes to her lover in this English-language ballad, it is to be noted that in Scottish, green and grey are denoted by the same word: glas. In Irish, the word can carry connotations of strangeness or eeriness, and can be applied to anyone who is dreamy, eccentric, or "a bit queer."
There is a powerful urge for many to emphasize nothing but the horror in fairy lore, in order to offset the frivolousness with which it is now associated in popular imagination. For those who see in Fairyland only hellish debasement and irrational nightmares...well, Tam Lin might be inclined to agree with you. But what is it that we are truly afraid of here? Lust? Alien life? Vengeance? Recognition? Are we not in the business of drawing circles to conjure up those very things?
More on that in the next installment.
Strange and Secret Peoples
Medieval Fairies As Other
Earth Girls Are Easy