Academic journal article Folklore

The Scouring of the Shire: Fairies, Trolls and Pixies in Eco-Protest Culture

Academic journal article Folklore

The Scouring of the Shire: Fairies, Trolls and Pixies in Eco-Protest Culture

Article excerpt


Environmental protest in Britain in the 1990s flourished with the growth of the direct action movement. A distinctive culture of protest emerged, particularly in response to the construction of new roads, with its own radicalised spirituality known as "eco-paganism." One feature of the movement was the adoption of a fairy mythology as a significant belief narrative. This article gives examples of this mythology, showing how it was expressed, and demonstrates that it produced three responses: outright rejection; a symbolic identification with fairies; and/or literal belief. This last position was given credence by occasional phenomenological encounters with otherworldly beings, examples of which are given. The article concludes that, whether literal or symbolic, the belief in fairies helped protesters make sense of their struggles, hardships and occasional successes.


From Arthurian legend to Anglo-Saxon texts, from Shakespeare to Disney, from garden gnomes to washing up liquid, fairies and fairy legends are an integral part of Western culture. Fairies, and the other inhabitants of their enchanted world, [1] have been a potent source of inspiration for the human imagination for over a thousand years, and continue to be so to the present day. A best-selling illustrated book about fairies, from the 1970s, describes the allure of fairyland:

   [it is] a world of dark enchantments, of captivating beauty, of enormous
   ugliness, of callous superficiality, of humour, mischief, joy and
   inspiration, of terror, laughter, love and tragedy ... its position is
   elusive. It is sometimes just over the horizon and sometimes beneath our
   feet (Froud and Lee 1978, 3).

More recently, on this side of the horizon, fairies have inspired a countercultural movement. The 1990s in Britain were marked by large and dramatic public protests against a government-sponsored programme of road building, and a private sector-led expansion of opencast quarrying. A distinctive protest culture flourished in response to this, combining the politics of direct action and an anarcho-travelling lifestyle, with a definite neo-pagan sensibility. This culture adopted an important fairy mythology which placed protesters within an almost fairytale-like struggle between the benevolent forces of nature and a tyrannical and destructive humanity. Protesters came to regard themselves as, or aided by, fairies or nature spirits in a just cause that pitted nature against artifice, the little people against the much larger, but corrupt, forces of law and order.

The aim of this article is to document examples of the way in which protesters have done and continue to do this, and to analyse how this "fairy mythology" has become a significant narrative for the movement. I will demonstrate that there are three responses to this narrative within protest culture: (i) hostility or outright rejection; (ii) symbolic identification with fairies; (iii) literal belief in fairies as spirits of nature. I conclude that both the symbolic identification with, and the literal belief in, fairies is fuelled by occasional phenomenological encounters with otherworldly beings. These encounters are related as stories which shape the belief systems of the movement. This work is based upon my time spent actively involved as a road protester, and more lately as a researcher carrying out fieldwork for my Ph.D. thesis on bardism within modern paganism. I begin with a brief overview of the road protest movement.

Road Building and Eco-Paganism

In the 1990s, the then Conservative Government launched a massive 23 billion [pounds sterling] road building scheme as a response to Britain's worsening traffic congestion problems. In the process, they unwittingly instigated the "most successful revolutionary movement in Western Europe in the second half of the twentieth century" (Monbiot 1998). Starting with just two people at Twyford Down in 1992, the movement grew, with protests the length of the country from Glasgow to Kent. …

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