On Something/The Way to Fairyland

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On Something by Hilaire Belloc
The Way to Fairyland

A child of four years old, having read of Fairyland and of the people in it, asked only two days ago, in a very popular attitude of doubt, whether there were any such place, and, if so, where it was; for she believed in her heart that the whole thing was a pack of lies.

I was happy to be able to tell her that her scepticism, though well founded, was extreme. The existence of Fairyland, I was able to point out to her both by documentary evidence from books and also by calling in the testimony of the aged, could not be doubted by any reasonable person. What was really difficult was the way to get there. Indeed, so obviously true was the existence of Fairyland, that every one in this world set out to go there as a matter of course, but so difficult was it to find the way that very few reached the place. Upon this the child very naturally asked me what sort of way the way was and why it was so difficult.

"You must first understand," said I, "where Fairyland is: it lies a little way farther than the farthest hill you can see. It lies, in fact, just beyond that hill. The frontiers of it are sometimes a little doubtful in any landscape, because the landscape is confused, but if on the extreme limits of the horizon you see a long line of hills bounding your view exactly, then you may be perfectly certain that on the other side of those hills is Fairyland. There are times of the day and of the weather when the sky over Fairyland can be clearly perceived, for it has a different colour from any other kind of sky. That is where Fairyland is. It is not on an island, as some have pretended, still less is it under the earth--a ridiculous story, for there it is all dark."

"But how do you get there?" asked the child. "Do you get there by walking to the hills and going over?"

"No," said I, "that is just the bother of it. Several people have thought that that was the way of getting there; in fact, it looked plain common sense, but there is a trick about it; when you get to the hills everything changes, because the fairies have that power: the hills become ordinary, the people living on them turn into people just like you and me, and then when you get to the top of the hills, before you can say knife another common country just like ours has been stuck on the other side. On this account, through the power of the fairies, who hate particularly to be disturbed, no one can reach Fairyland in so simple a way as by walking towards it."

"Then," said the child to me, "I don't see how any one can get there"--for this child had good brains and common sense.

"But," said I, "you must have read in stories of people who get to Fairyland, and I think you will notice that in the stories written by people who know anything about it (and you know how easily these are distinguished from the others) there are always two ways of getting to Fairyland, and only two: one is by mistake, and the other is by a spell. In the first way to Fairyland is to lose your way, and this is one of the best ways of getting there; but it is dangerous, because if you get there that way you offend the fairies. It is better to get there by a spell. But the inconvenience of that is that you are blindfolded so as not to be allowed to remember the way there or back again. When you get there by a spell, one of the people from Fairyland takes you in charge. They prefer to do it when you are asleep, but they are quite game to do it at other times if they think it worth their while.

"Why do they do it?" said the child.

"They do it," said I, "because it annoys the fairies very much to think that people are stopping believing in them. They are very proud people, and think a lot of themselves. They can, if they like, do us good, and they think us ungrateful when we forget about them. Sometimes in the past people have gone on forgetting about fairies more and more and more, until at last they have stopped believing in them altogether. The fairies meanwhile have been looking after their own affairs, and it is their fault more than ours when we forget about them. But when this has gone on for too long a time the fairies wake up and find out by a way they have that men have stopped believing in them, and get very much annoyed. Then some fairy proposes that a map of the way to Fairyland should be drawn up and given to the people; but this is always voted down; and at last they make up their minds to wake people up to Fairyland by going and visiting this world, and by spells bringing several people into their kingdom and so getting witnesses. For, as you can imagine, it is a most unpleasant thing to be really important and for other people not to know it."

"Yes," said the child, who had had this unpleasant experience, and greatly sympathized with the fairies when I explained how much they disliked it. Then the child asked me again:

"Why do the fairies let us forget about them?"

"It is," said I, "because they get so excited about their own affairs. Rather more than a hundred years ago, for instance, a war broke out in Fairyland because the King of the Fairies, whose name is Oberon, and the Queen of the Fairies, whose name is Titania, had asked the Trolls to dinner. The Gnomes were very much annoyed at this, and the Elves still more so, for the chief glory of the Elves was that being elfish got you to know people; and it was universally admitted that the Trolls ought never to be asked out, because they were trollish. King Oberon said that all that was a wicked prejudice, and that the Trolls ought to be asked out to dinner just as much as the Elves, in common justice. But his real reason was that he was bored by the perpetual elfishness of the Elves, and wanted to see the great ugly Trolls trying to behave like gentlemen for a change. So the Trolls came and tied their napkins round their necks, and ate such enormous quantities at dinner that King Oberon and his Queen almost died of laughing. The Elves were frightfully jealous, and so the war began. And while it was going on everybody in Earthland forgot more and more about Fairyland, until at last some people went so far as to say, like you, that Fairyland did not exist."

"I did not say so," said the child, "I only asked."

"But," I answered severely, "asking about such things is the beginning of doubting them. Anyhow, the fairies woke up one fine day about the time when your great-grandfather got married, to discover that they were not believed in, so they patched up their quarrel and they sent fairies to cast spells, and any amount of people began to be taken to Fairyland, until at last every one was forced to believe their evidence and to say that Fairyland existed."

"Were they glad?" said the child.

"Who?" said I; "the witnesses who were thus taken away and shown Fairyland?"

"Yes," said the child. "They ought to have been glad."

"Well, they weren't!" said I. "They were as sick as dogs. Not one of them but got into some dreadful trouble. From one his wife ran away, another starved to death, a third killed himself, a fourth was drowned and then burned upon the seashore, a fifth went mad (and so did several others), and as for poverty, and all the misfortunes that go with it, it simply rained upon the people who had been to Fairyland."

"Why?" said the child, greatly troubled.

"Ah!" said I, "that is what none of us know, but so it is, if they take you to Fairyland you are in for a very bad business indeed. There is only one way out of it."

"And what is that?" said the child, interested.

"Washing," said I, "washing in cold water. It has been proved over and over again."

"Then," said the child happily, "they can take me to Fairyland as often as they like, and I shall not be the worse for it, for I am washed in cold water every day. What about the other way to Fairyland?"

"Oh that," said I, "that, I think, is much the best way; I've gone there myself."

"Have you really?" said the child, now intensely interested. "That is good! How often have you been there?"

"Oh I can't tell you," I said carelessly, "but at least eight times, and perhaps more, and the dodge is, as I told you, to lose your way; only the great trouble is that no one can lose his way on purpose. At first I used to think that one had to follow signs. There was an omnibus going down the King's Road which had 'To the World's End' painted on it. I got into this one day, and after I had gone some miles I said to the man, 'When do we get to the World's End?' 'Oh,' said he, 'you have passed it long ago,' and he rang a little bell to make me get out. So it was a fraud. Another time I saw another omnibus with the words, 'To the Monster,' and I got into that, but I heard that it was only a sort of joke, and that though the Monster was there all right, he was not in Fairyland. This omnibus went through a very uninteresting part of London, and Fairyland was nowhere in the neighbourhood. Another time in the country of France I came upon a printed placard which said: 'The excursion will pass by the Seven Winds, the Foolish Heath, and St. Martin under Heaven.' This time also I thought I had got it, but when I looked at the date on the placard I saw that the excursion had started several days before, so I missed it again. Another time up in Scotland I saw a signpost on which there was, 'To the King's House seven miles.' And some one had written underneath in pencil: 'And to the Dragon's Cave eleven.' But nothing came of it. It was a false lane. After that I gave up believing that one could get to Fairyland by signposts or omnibuses, until one day, quite by mistake, I chanced on the dodge of losing one's way."

"How is that done?" said the child.

"That is what no one can tell you," said I. "If people knew how it was done everybody would do it, but the whole point of losing your way is that you do it by mistake. You must be quite certain that you have not lost your way or it is no good. You walk along, and you walk along, and you wonder how long it will be before you get to the town, and then instead of getting to the town at all, there you are in Fairyland."

"How do you know that you are in Fairyland?" said the little child.

"It depends how far you get in," said I. "If you get in far enough trees and rocks change into men, rivers talk, and voices of people whom you cannot see tell you all sorts of things in loud and clear tones close to your ear. But if you only get a little way inside then you know that you are there by a sort of wonderment. The things ought to be like the things you see every day, but they are a little different, notably the trees. It happened to me once in a town called Lanchester. A part of that town (though no one would think of it to look at it) happens to be in Fairyland. And there I was received by three fairies, who gave me supper in an inn. And it happened to me once in the mountains and once it happened to me at sea. I lost my way and came upon a beach which was in Fairyland. Another time it happened to me between Goodwood and Upwaltham in Sussex."

At this moment the child's nurse came in to take it away, so she came to the point:

"How did you know you were in Fairyland?' she said doubtfully." Perhaps you are making all this up."

"Nonsense!" I said reprovingly, "the only people who make things up are little children, for they always tell lies. Grown-up people never tell lies. Let me tell you that one always knows when one has been in Fairyland by the feeling afterwards, and because it is impossible to find it again."

The child said, "Very well, I will believe you," but I could see from the expression of her eyes that she was not wholly convinced, and that in the bottom of her heart she does not believe there is any such place. She will, however, if she can hang on another forty years, and then I shall have my revenge.