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Charles Kingsley

The True Fairy Tale


Y OU asked if there were men in England when the country was covered with ice and snow. Look at this, and judge for yourself.


What is it? a piece of old mortar? Yes. But mortar which was made by Madam How herself, and not by any man. And what is in it? A piece of flint and some bits of bone. But look at that piece of flint. It is narrow, thin, sharp-edged: quite different in shape from any bit of flint which you or I ever saw among the hundreds of thousands of broken bits of gravel which we tread on here all day long; and here are some more bits like it, which came from the same place—all very much the same shape, like rough knives or razor blades; and here is a core of flint, the remaining part of a large flint, from which, as you may see, blades like those have been split off. Those flakes of flint, my child, were split off by men; even your young eyes ought to be able to see that. And here are other pieces of flint—pear-shaped, but flattened, sharp at one end and left rounded at the other, which look like spear-heads, or arrow-heads, or pointed axes, or pointed hatchets—even your young eyes can see that these must have been made by man. And they are, I may tell you, just like the tools of flint, or of obsidian, which is volcanic glass, and which savages use still where they have not iron. There is a great obsidian knife, you know, in a house in this very parish, which came from Mexico; and your eye can tell you how like it is to these flint ones. But these flint tools are very old. If you crack a fresh flint, you will see that its surface is grey, and somewhat rough, so that it sticks to your tongue. These tools are smooth and shiny: and the edges of some of them are a little rubbed from being washed about in gravel; while the iron in the gravel has stained them reddish, which it would take hundreds and perhaps thousands of years to do. There are little rough markings, too, upon some of them, which, if you look at through a magnifying glass, are iron, crystallised into the shape of little seaweeds and trees—another sign that they are very very old. And what is more, near the place where these flint flakes come from there are no flints in the ground for hundreds of miles; so that men must have brought them there ages and ages since. And to tell you plainly, these are scrapers such as the Esquimaux in North America still use to scrape the flesh off bones, and to clean the insides of skins.

But did these people (savages perhaps) live when the country was icy cold? Look at the bits of bone. They have been split, you see, lengthways; that, I suppose, was to suck the marrow out of them, as savages do still. But to what animal do the bones belong? That is the question, and one which I could not have answered you, if wiser men than I am could not have told me.

They are the bones of reindeer—such reindeer as are now found only in Lapland and the half-frozen parts of North America, close to the Arctic circle, where they have six months day and six months night. You have read of Laplanders, and how they drive reindeer in their sledges, and live upon reindeer milk; and you have read of Esquimaux, who hunt seals and walrus, and live in houses of ice, lighted by lamps fed with the same blubber on which they feed themselves. I need not tell you about them.

Now comes the question—Whence did these flints and bones come? They came out of a cave in Dordogne, in the heart of sunny France,—far away to the south, where it is hotter every summer than it was here even this summer, from among woods of box and evergreen oak, and vineyards of rich red wine. In that warm land once lived savages, who hunted amid ice and snow the reindeer, and with the reindeer animals stranger still.

And now I will tell you a fairy tale: to make you understand it at all I must put it in the shape of a tale. I call it a fairy tale, because it is so strange; indeed I think I ought to call it the fairy tale of all fairy tales, for by the time we get to the end of it I think it will explain to you how our forefathers got to believe in fairies, and trolls, and elves, and scratlings, and all strange little people who were said to haunt the mountains and the caves.

Well, once upon a time, so long ago that no man can tell when, the land was so much higher, that between England and Ireland, and, what is more, between England and Norway, was firm dry land. The country then must have looked—at least we know it looked so in Norfolk—very like what our moors look like here. There were forests of Scotch fir, and of spruce too, which is not wild in England now, though you may see plenty in every plantation. There were oaks and alders, yews and sloes, just as there are in our woods now. There was buck-bean in the bogs, as there is in Larmer's and Heath pond; and white and yellow water-lilies, horn-wort, and pond-weeds, just as there are now in our ponds. There were wild horses, wild deer, and wild oxen, those last of an enormous size. There were little yellow roe-deer, which will not surprise you, for there are hundreds and thousands in Scotland to this day; and, as you know, they will thrive well enough in our woods now. There were beavers too: but that must not surprise you, for there were beavers in South Wales long after the Norman Conquest, and there are beavers still in the mountain glens of the south-east of France. There were honest little water-rats too, who I daresay sat up on their hind legs like monkeys, nibbling the water-lily pods, thousands of years ago, as they do in our pond now. Well, so far we have come to nothing strange: but now begins the fairy tale. Mixed with all these animals, there wandered about great herds of elephants and rhinoceroses; not smooth-skinned, mind, but covered with hair and wool, like those which are still found sticking out of the everlasting ice-cliffs, at the mouth of the Lena and other Siberian rivers, with the flesh, and skin, and hair so fresh upon them, that the wild wolves tear it off, and snarl and growl over the carcase of monsters who were frozen up thousands of years ago. And with them, stranger still, were great hippopotamuses; who came, perhaps, northward in summer time along the sea-shore and down the rivers, having spread hither all the way from Africa; for in those days, you must understand, Sicily, and Italy, and Malta—look at your map—were joined to the coast of Africa: and so it may be was the rock of Gibraltar itself; and over the sea where the Straits of Gibraltar now flow was firm dry land, over which hyænas and leopards, elephants and rhinoceroses ranged into Spain; for their bones are found at this day in the Gibraltar caves. And this is the first chapter of my fairy tale.

Now while all this was going on, and perhaps before this began, the climate was getting colder year by year—we do not know how; and, what is more, the land was sinking; and it sank so deep that at last nothing was left out of the water but the tops of the mountains in Ireland, and Scotland, and Wales. It sank so deep that it left beds of shells belonging to the Arctic regions nearly two thousand feet high upon the mountain side. And so

"It grew wondrous cold,

And ice mast-high came floating by,

As green as emerald."

But there were no masts then to measure the icebergs by, nor any ship nor human being there. All we know is that the icebergs brought with them vast quantities of mud, which sank to the bottom, and covered up that pleasant old forest-land in what is called boulder clay; clay full of bits of broken rock, and of blocks of stone so enormous, that nothing but an iceberg could have carried them. So all the animals were drowned or driven away, and nothing was left alive perhaps, except a few little hardy plants which clung about cracks and gullies in the mountain tops; and whose descendants live there still. That was a dreadful time; the worst, perhaps, of all the age of Ice: and so ends the second chapter of my fairy tale.

Now for my third chapter. "When things come to the worst," says the proverb, "they commonly mend;" and so did this poor frozen and drowned land of England and France and Germany, though it mended very slowly. The land began to rise out of the sea once more, and rose till it was perhaps as high as it had been at first, and hundreds of feet higher than it is now: but still it was very cold, covered, in Scotland at least, with one great sea of ice and glaciers descending down into the sea, as I said when I spoke to you about the Ice-Plough. But as the land rose, and grew warmer too, while it rose, the wild beasts who had been driven out by the great drowning came gradually back again. As the bottom of the old icy sea turned into dry land, and got covered with grasses, and weeds, and shrubs once more, elephants, rhinoceroses, hippopotamuses, oxen—sometimes the same species, sometimes slightly different ones—returned to France, and then to England (for there was no British Channel then to stop them); and with them came other strange animals, especially the great Irish elk, as he is called, as large as the largest horse, with horns sometimes ten feet across. A pair of those horns with the skull you have seen yourself, and can judge what a noble animal he must have been. Enormous bears came too, and hyænas, and a tiger or lion (I cannot say which), as large as the largest Bengal tiger now to be seen in India.


And in those days—we cannot, of course, exactly say when—there came—first, I suppose, into the south and east of France, and then gradually onward into England and Scotland and Ireland—creatures without any hair to keep them warm, or scales to defend them, without horns or tusks to fight with, or teeth to worry and bite; the weakest you would have thought of the beasts, and yet stronger than all the animals, because they were Men, with reasonable souls. Whence they came we cannot tell, nor why; perhaps from mere hunting after food, and love of wandering and being independent and alone. Perhaps they came into that icy land for fear of stronger and cleverer people than themselves; for we have no proof, my child, none at all, that they were the first men that trod this earth. But be that as it may, they came; and so cunning were these savage men, and so brave likewise, though they had no iron among them, only flint and sharpened bones, yet they contrived to kill and eat the mammoths, and the giant oxen, and the wild horses, and the reindeer, and to hold their own against the hyænas, and tigers, and bears, simply because they had wits, and the dumb animals had none. And that is the strangest part to me of all my fairy tale. For what a man's wits are, and why he has them, and therefore is able to invent and to improve, while even the cleverest ape has none, and therefore can invent and improve nothing, and therefore cannot better himself, but must remain from father to son, and father to son again, a stupid, pitiful, ridiculous ape, while men can go on civilizing themselves, and growing richer and more comfortable, wiser and happier, year by year—how that comes to pass, I say, is to me a wonder and a prodigy and a miracle, stranger than all the most fantastic marvels you ever read in fairy tales.


You may find the flint weapons which these old savages used buried in many a gravel-pit up and down France and the south of England; but you will find none here, for the gravel here was made (I am told) at the beginning of the ice-time, before the north of England sunk into the sea, and therefore long, long before men came into this land. But most of their remains are found in caves which water has eaten out of the limestone rocks, like that famous cave of Kent's Hole at Torquay. In it, and in many another cave, lie the bones of animals which the savages ate, and cracked to get the marrow out of them, mixed up with their flint-weapons and bone harpoons, and sometimes with burnt ashes and with round stones, used perhaps to heat water, as savages do now, all baked together into a hard paste or breccia by the lime. These are in the water, and are often covered with a floor of stalagmite which has dripped from the roof above and hardened into stone. Of these caves and their beautiful wonders I must tell you another day. We must keep now to our fairy tale. But in these caves, no doubt, the savages lived; for not only have weapons been found in them, but actually drawings scratched (I suppose with flint) on bone or mammoth ivory; drawings of elk, and bull, and horse, and ibex: and one, which was found in France, of the great mammoth himself, the woolly elephant, with a mane on his shoulders like a lion's mane. So you see that one of the earliest fancies of this strange creature, called man, was to draw, as you and your schoolfellows love to draw, and copy what you see, you know not why. Remember that. You like to draw: but why you like it neither you nor any man can tell. It is one of the mysteries of human nature; and that poor savage clothed in skins, dirty it may be, and more ignorant than you (happily) can conceive, when he sat in the cave scratching on ivory the figures of the animals he hunted, was proving thereby that he had the same wonderful and mysterious human nature as you; that he was the kinsman of every painter and sculptor who ever felt it a delight and duty to copy the beautiful works of God.


Sometimes, again, especially in Denmark, these savages have left behind upon the shore mounds of dirt, which are called there "kjökken-möddings"—"kitchen-middens" as they would say in Scotland, "kitchen-dirtheaps" as we should say here down South—and a very good name for them that is. For they are made up of the shells of oysters, cockles, mussels, and periwinkles, and other shore-shells besides, on which those poor creatures fed; and mingled with them are broken bones of beasts, and fishes, and birds, and flint knives, and axes, and sling-stones; and here and there hearths, on which they have cooked their meals in some rough way; and that is nearly all we know about them: but this we know from the size of certain of the shells, and from other reasons which you would not understand, that these mounds were made an enormous time ago, when the water of the Baltic Sea was far more salt than it is now.

But what has all this to do with my fairy tale? This:—

Suppose that these people, after all, had been fairies?

I am in earnest. Of course, I do not mean that these folk could make themselves invisible, or that they had any supernatural powers—any more, at least, than you and I have—or that they were anything but savages: but this I do think, that out of old stories of these savages grew up the stories of fairies, elves, and trolls, and scratlings, and cluricaunes, and ogres, of which you have read so many.

When stronger and bolder people, like the Irish, and the Highlanders of Scotland, and the Gauls of France, came northward with their bronze and iron weapons; and still more, when our own forefathers, the Germans and the Norsemen, came, these poor little savages with their flint arrows and axes, were no match for them, and had to run away northward, or be all killed out; for people were fierce and cruel in those old times, and looked on every one of a different race from themselves as a natural enemy. They had not learnt—alas! too many have not learnt it yet—that all men are brothers for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord. So these poor savages were driven out, till none were left, save the little Lapps up in the north of Norway, where they live to this day.

But stories of them, and of how they dwelt in caves, and had strange customs, and used poisoned weapons, and how the elf-bolts (as their flint arrow-heads are still called) belonged to them, lingered on, and were told round the fire on winter nights, and added to, and played with half in fun, till a hundred legends sprang up about them, which used once to be believed by grown-up folk, but which now only amuse children. And because some of these savages were very short, as the Lapps and Esquimaux are now, the story grew of their being so small that they could make themselves invisible; and because others of them were (but probably only a few) very tall and terrible, the story grew that there were giants in that old world, like that famous Gogmagog, whom Brutus and his Britons met (so old fables tell), when they landed first at Plymouth, and fought him, and threw him over the cliff. Ogres, too—of whom you read in fairy tales—I am afraid that there were such people once, even here in Europe; strong and terrible savages, who ate human beings. Of course, the legends and tales about them became ridiculous and exaggerated as they passed from mouth to mouth over the Christmas fire, in the days when no one could read or write. But that the tales began by being true any one may well believe who knows how many cannibal savages there are in the world even now. I think that, if ever there was an ogre in the world, he must have been very like a certain person who lived, or was buried, in a cave in the Neanderthal, between Elberfeld and Dusseldorf, on the Lower Rhine. The skull and bones which were found there (and which are very famous now among scientific men) belonged to a personage whom I should have been very sorry to meet, and still more to let you meet, in the wild forest; to a savage of enormous strength of limb (and I suppose of jaw) likewise

"like an ape,

With forehead villainous low;"

who could have eaten you if he would; and (I fear) also would have eaten you if he could. Such savages may have lingered (I believe, from the old ballads and romances, that they did linger) for a long time in lonely forests and mountain caves, till they were all killed out by warriors who wore mail-armour, and carried steel sword, and battle-axe, and lance.

But had these people any religion?

My dear child, we cannot know, and need not know. But we know this—that God beholds all the heathen. He fashions the hearts of them, and understandeth all their works. And we know also that He is just and good. These poor folks were, I doubt not, happy enough in their way; and we are bound to believe (for we have no proof against it), that most of them were honest and harmless enough likewise. Of course, ogres and cannibals, and cruel and brutal persons (if there were any among them), deserved punishment: and punishment, I do not doubt, they got. But, of course, again, none of them knew things which you know; but for that very reason they were not bound to do many things which you are bound to do. For those to whom little is given, of them shall little be required. What their religion was like, or whether they had any religion at all, we cannot tell. But this we can tell, that known unto God are all His works from the creation of the world; and that His mercy is over all His works, and He hateth nothing that He has made. These men and women, whatever they were, were God's work. And therefore we may comfort ourselves with the certainty that, whether or not they knew God, God knew them.

And so ends my fairy tale.

But is it not a wonderful tale? More wonderful, if you will think over it, than any story invented by man. But so it always is. "Truth," wise men tell us, "is stranger than fiction." Even a child like you will see that it must be so, if you will but recollect who makes fiction, and who makes facts.

Man makes fiction: he invents stories, pretty enough, fantastical enough. But out of what does he make them up? Out of a few things in this great world which he has seen, and heard, and felt, just as he makes up his dreams. But who makes truth? Who makes facts? Who, but God?

Then truth is as much larger than fiction, as God is greater than man; as much larger as the whole universe is larger than the little corner of it that any man, even the greatest poet or philosopher, can see; and as much grander, and as much more beautiful, and as much more strange. For one is the whole, and the other is only a few tiny scraps of the whole. The one is the work of God; the other is the work of man. Be sure that no man can ever fancy anything strange, unexpected, and curious, without finding, if he had eyes to see, a hundred things around his feet more strange, more unexpected, more curious, actually ready-made already by God. You are fond of fairy tales, because they are fanciful, and like your dreams. My dear child, as your eyes open to the true fairy tale which Madam How can tell you all day long, nursery stories will seem to you poor and dull. All those feelings in you which your nursery tales call out,—imagination, wonder, awe, pity, and I trust too, hope and love—will be called out, I believe, by the Tale of all Tales, the true "Märchen allen Märchen," so much more fully and strongly and purely, that you will feel that novels and story-books are scarcely worth your reading, as long as you can read the great green book, of which every bud is a letter, and every tree a page.

Wonder if you will. You cannot wonder too much. That you might wonder all your life long, God put you into this wondrous world, and gave you that faculty of wonder which he has not given to the brutes; which is at once the mother of sound science, and a pledge of immortality in a world more wondrous even than this. But wonder at the right thing, not at the wrong; at the real miracles and prodigies, not at the sham. Wonder not at the world of man. Waste not your admiration, interest, hope on it, its pretty toys, gay fashions, fine clothes, tawdry luxuries, silly amusements. Wonder at the works of God. You will not, perhaps, take my advice yet. The world of man looks so pretty, that you will needs have your peep at it, and stare into its shop windows; and if you can, go to a few of its stage plays, and dance at a few of its balls. Ah—well—After a wild dream comes an uneasy wakening; and after too many sweet things, comes a sick headache. And one morning you will awake, I trust and pray, from the world of man to the world of God, and wonder where wonder is due, and worship where worship is due. You will awake like a child who has been at a pantomime over night, staring at the "fairy halls," which are all paint and canvas; and the "dazzling splendours," which are gas and oil; and the "magic transformations," which are done with ropes and pulleys; and the "brilliant elves," who are poor little children out of the next foul alley; and the harlequin and clown, who through all their fun are thinking wearily over the old debts which they must pay, and the hungry mouths at home which they must feed: and so, having thought it all wondrously glorious, and quite a fairy land, slips tired and stupid into bed, and wakes next morning to see the pure light shining in through the delicate frost-lace on the window-pane, and looks out over fields of virgin snow, and watches the rosy dawn and cloudless blue, and the great sun rising to the music of cawing rooks and piping stares, and says, "This is the true wonder. This is the true glory. The theatre last night was the fairy land of man; but this is the fairy land of God."