Friday 15 January 2010

Fairies and Faeries

Never mind vampires. Think urban faeries. American faeries. They have attitude and they are dangerous. Think streetwise fashion, romance with a distinct sado-masochistic streak, think doomed love. Think of weird little sprites doing unspeakable things to each other in corners, teenage heroines sacrificing themselves to save beautiful young men doomed to hell, or to release young summer kings from winter’s eternal grip. Think of titles like Tithe by Holly Black, Wicked Lovely by Melissa Marr, City of Bones by Cassandra Clare.

I love traditional fairytales, but by an oddity of the English language, fairies as such seldom figure in them. Even in the French tales of Charles Perrault and Madame D’Aulnoy, still less in Grimm’s Märchen, there are almost no fairies in fairytales at all. Far more often the stories turn upon the natural wickedness of men and women (as in The Juniper Tree), on witches (Hansel and Gretel, Jorinda and Jorindel), dwarfs (Strong Hans), mysterious old men or women met on the road (The Tinder Box), wise or magical animals, (The Goose Girl, The White Snake) haunted houses (The Boy who Didn’t Know Fear), Death, the Devil, Christ and St Peter.

It might have been better to call these stories folk-tales, but collections for children persist in calling them fairytales, probably because of the influence of Andrew Lang’s marvellous coloured fairy books. When you encounter a fairy in one of Lang’s tales, she is no diminutive flower-sprite, but an adult-sized, powerful woman – either good, with a Latinate name like Graciosa or Preciosa, or evil, with a name like Malefice or Perfidia. Her powers revolve around blessing or cursing cradles, and interfering in marriages. There are no male fairies at all.

Lang himself was a vigorous folklorist. The Grimm brothers were only a part of the great revival of interest in traditional tales that took place as an offshoot of the romantic movement and of nascent nationalism, right through the 19th century and into the 20th. Selkies stirred in the Outer Hebrides. Undines drew themselves sinuously out of German rivers. The Neckan sang mournfully on Scandinavian cliffs. Baba Yaga flew through the Russian woods in her pestle and mortar to light down at her skull-bedecked garden gate, and the Sidhe went riding from Knocknarea and over the grave of Clooth-na-bare. (However you pronounce it, it sounds wonderful.) Some of these tales, especially the Celtic ones, filtered through to children, who might read about the Children of Dana, fated to spend their lives as wild swans. The Irish always knew the dangerous side of the fairies. William Allingham’s ‘Up the Aery Mountain, Down the Rushy Glen’ with its ‘Wee folk, good folk, Trooping all together, Green jacket, red cap, And white owl’s feather’ may fleetingly sound to modern ears like Disney’s dwarfs. But Allingham knew the connection of the fairies with loss and death:

They stole little Bridget
For seven years long,
And when she came down again
Her friends were all gone.

They took her lightly back,
Between the night and morrow,
They thought she was fast asleep,
But she was dead from sorrow.

Scottish J.M. Barrie’s ‘Peter Pan’ may include Tinkerbell, but his second take on a supernaturally extended youth is an eerie play about a girl lost to the fairies, ‘Mary Rose’; and it doesn’t have a happy ending.

Despite all this, back in the first half of the 20th century, fairies in children’s books were almost synonymous with an idealised childhood – especially girlhood. Think of the Cottesloe fairies and the Flower Fairies. They were fragile little creatures who lived under toadstools and wore bluebell hats; they died if you disbelieved in them; they painted the tips of daisies pink; above all they were helpful: not for nothing did Lady Baden-Powell name her girl scout movement ‘The Brownies’ (after an earlier name ‘The Rosebuds’ proved unpopular with girls). Brownies were thought of as helpful domestic spirits, and the traditional names for the Brownie ‘sixes’ – at least when I joined briefly in the 1960’s – were Pixies, Elves, Leprechauns, Gnomes, Fairies and Sprites. Racism was rife – who wanted to be a gnome? – there were badges for feminine tasks such as knitting, sewing, and baking buns, and I left after a few weeks, partly because I did not believe I would ever learn to skip a hundred times backwards.

Then, in the 1960’s Alan Garner burst upon the scene, raiding Celtic and Norse legends and throwing the booty together in the most electrifying way in his first two books The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and the Moon of Gomrath – in which two contemporary and quite pedestrian children (who might easily in other hands have seen fairies at the bottom of the garden) are hurled into a maelstrom of ancient magic, moon goddesses, shapeless terrors and hints of deeper legends, deeper worlds. Children’s literature was changed forever.

No fairy, of course, would get a look-in to any of Garner’s books; but it’s worth noting that no faeries get in either. The male supernaturals are wizards, a few rather stiff and chilly male elves, and dwarves. The females – Angharad Goldenhand and her obverse the Morrigan – are variants of the triple moon goddess or witch queen. But Garner released a rush of legend and folklore into children’s and young adult fiction. And fairies in folklore have always been connected with sex as well as death:

‘Harp and carp, Thomas,’ she said
‘Harp and carp along with me,
And if you dare to kiss my lips.
Sure of your body I will be.’

So Thomas the Rhymer kissed the Queen of Elphame under the Eildon Tree and rode away with her through the river of blood into elfland. Wild Edric lost his fairy wife and rides for ever on the Shropshire hills (pictured above) with his Hunt, searching for her. Fairy wives often symbolize the dead. (I modelled parts of my book ‘Dark Angels’ on some of these legends.) As for the sexy, beautiful, dangerous male faeries of the modern teen novels, with their nod to James Fraser’s dying god the Corn King, what about the Irish ‘Love-Talker’, a beautiful fairy youth who waylays young girls in the gloaming and makes them so love-sick for him that they pine away and die?

I can’t begin to say all I want to say about fairies and faeries in a short (or even a rather long) blog post. But fairies, faeries, elves, whatever you like to call them, symbolise the supernatural Other in all its manifestations: the threat of illness, bereavement and death as well as the lure of love and beauty. That’s surely why in the 16th century the ‘high’fairies were rationalised into two ‘courts’: the ‘Seelie Court’ and the ‘Unseelie Court’, representing their benevolent and harmful aspects. Love and death, beauty and cruelty, good and evil – the European faerie culture is rich and complex. No wonder so many modern fantasy writers want to plunder it.


  1. I was a gnome. I still remember how humiliating that felt.

  2. My Brownie daughter is a ghillie-dhu! 'Dark servant', which is a lovelier name in Gaelic!

    I'm frustrated by the fashion for urban faeries, having written mine six years ago originally! - but hey, it wasn't ready for publication then. Kath, I haven't read your Dark Angels yet (I will), but is the title a reference to the myth that the faeries were fallen angels?

    And has anyone read Libba Bray's Rebel Angels? I'm afraid to, in that superstitious writerly way, because it shares its title with one of mine (though it doesn't seem to be a similar story, touch wood!)

  3. I think I may have been a pixie, Keren, but I wanted to be a fairy, of course.

    'Ghillie-dhu' - how excellent! Yes, my title does refer to the fallen angels thing, but I originally wanted to call the book 'Devil's Edge'. My elves are the very ambiguous 'lost', including lost or abandoned (or even dead) children, as well as the angels cast out from heaven when Lucifer fell.

    I haven't heard of 'Rebel Angels' - will go and check it out. And yours too!

  4. Have just finished reading Michelle Harrison's Thirteen Curses which is full of bad fairies, taking human children and leaving a changeling, dragging people off into the fairy realm in mad dances.
    Absolutely loved, and was terrified by, Alan Garner's books when I was younger. now wondering if they're still around somewhere.

  5. That Allingham Poem you quote is SENSATIONAL. I'm about to copy it out. Thanks! A wonderful post, reminding me of how much I loved the Andrew Lang coloured fairy books.

  6. Maryom, yes, Alan Garner's books are all still in print! Will make a note of Thirteen Curses. (So many books, so little time...!)

    Glad you loved the poem, Adele - it's one of my childhood favourites, even though, or perhaps because, it does give one a shiver down the spine.

  7. I love fairy tales, folk tales, and myths. The story of Arthur Conan Doyle and the Cottingly Fairies illustrates how clearly we want to believe and is fascinating in its own right.

    Although not specifically about fairies, Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Women Writers Explore Their Favorite Fairy Tales is an excellent read!

  8. Dear Jenclair - I have that book! As you say, it's a fascinating read. The fairy photos are worthy of a post in themselves, but illustrative I think of 19th century (male) attitudes to women/girls as well as beliefs or assumptions about fairies. The fairies which Doyle expected to see were the bluebell-hat-wearing, non-threatening, non-sexual literary construct symbolic of childish innocence: and he found it credible that little girls might be able to see them because of their own (assumed) innocence; and because he didn't expect little girls to play tricks or lie.
    Had the little girls belonged to an earlier era, they might have ended up being the centre of a witch hunt like the girls in the Salem trials, as the fairies would have been assumed to be harmful!

  9. I love the old ballads. Steeleye Span's version of Thomas the Rhymer manages to be wild and dangerous and eerie all at the same time, which sums up fairies for me. How they became pink and sparkly I'll never understand! (My muse says the same thing happened to unicorns).

  10. Two other good modern faery novels are "Hannah's Garden" by Midori Snyder and "Changeling" by Delia Sherman -- both published by Viking U.S. and thus a bit hard to find in the U.K., but well worth tracking down. I also love Ellen Kushner's "Thomas the Rhymer" novel -- which isn't contemporary in setting, but the fairies in it are wonderful.

  11. Thanks for these recommendations - I will run and find out!