Magical Creatures for Magical Worlds: Fairies

FairyFantasy is a genre where the mythical and made-up can be reality, where the fact that something is physically impossible doesn’t stop it from burning down your town or stealing your babies.

In this series, I’ll be looking at the creatures of fantasy – where they came from, how authors have used them, and what potential they have in the stories we’re writing now.

I’m starting with fairies. They are also known as the fey, the little people hiding in mystical groves, winged humanoids often thought to be pretty or playful – but not always quite so benign. Various other critters have been grouped under the fairy banner – imps, sprites, gnomes, nymphs and goblins, for example – but in this article I’ll be talking about the kind that are only ever called fairies or some variation thereof.

The Fairies of Myth

The playful, pretty little things with wings and clothes made of petals that we see in paintings and children’s movies are a product of the Victorian imagination. These fairies are small, nonthreatening, and suitable for children’s tales. In older folklore, fairies are neither so cute nor so friendly.

Their origins are difficult to tell, and there remain several theories. My favourite is the idea that, with the advent of Christianity, the minor deities and nymphs of Greek and Roman legend and pre-Roman paganism in Britain were reinterpreted as fairies, magical beings, but no longer considered divine. Another theory sees fairies as the spirits of the dead or demons walking the earth. Another view sees them as a hidden race of tiny people, hiding from oafish humans.

The oldest folklore claims fairies stole babies and switched them out for changelings, fairy beings that took on the appearance of the child or sometimes pieces of wood that quickly appeared to sicken and die. These stories were probably used to explain illness that killed infants and mental illnesses which the people of a pre-modern world didn’t understand. What the fairies used the babies for varies by the legend too – in the folk song Tamlin, which originated in the Scottish borders, the title character was once a man, kidnapped by the Queen of the Fairies and facing the fate of being given to Hell as a tithe at Halloween. In other stories, the fairies use the stolen infants as servants or even just steal them out of spite.

Other stories of what fairies got up to were not quite so harmful. Fairies were considered, at the very least, to be pranksters, playing tricks on people by leading travellers astray, pulling a person’s hair as they slept, and stealing small things – sometimes shiny things, other times mundane worthless things that the fairies seemed to think pretty.

Iron is the best weapon against fairies. In all the different legends, it is iron that they fear, iron which harms them. Some legends suggest leaving iron tools, such as scissors, beside a sleeping child to prevent it from being snatched by fairies and a changeling left in its place. A horseshoe is perhaps the best known iron item to ward against fairies and other supernatural creatures, nailed above a door – and some of these are still seen today above older cottages and pubs across Britain and parts of northern and north-western Europe. Charms and herbs can also keep fairies away, particularly those made with rowan.

The origins linking fairies to the dead can be seen in the stories of where they live – not always pretty mystical groves. In some of the stories they live in ancient barrows, burial mounds. These are the places of the dead, where even the ancient dead of times lost to memory are buried. From these origins might come the tradition of ringing a cemetery with iron railings, to keep the spirits of the dead within, away from the world of the living.

So you see, in folklore, before fairies were sanitised by the Victorians, fairies were not so cute and pretty and playful, but sinister and dangerous. They were strange, magical beings who stole babies and trinkets, and made travellers lose their way. They could only be kept at bay by iron or charms.

Fairies of Literature

Because fairies do come across in such a sinister, unknowable way, they have long been written about. Shakespeare used the myth in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where it is the king and queen of the fairies, Oberon and Titania, as well as Oberon’s mischievous servant Puck, who drive much of the action. The play begins with Oberon and Titania quarrelling, continues with Puck casting spells to turn the labourer Bottom’s head into that of a donkey, and then to make Titania fall in love with the donkey-headed Bottom. It ends when the quarrel is resolved, and the fairies bless the house of the human lovers whose story has been taking place in the fairies’ forest.

More recently, in J M Barrie’s Peter Pan, fairies such as Tinkerbell – who has since gained huge popularity with the Disney movie adaptation of the book – are indeed the playfully mischievous type of the Victorian era. Yet they retain a selfishness and pettiness to them – not so different from Oberon, Titania and Puck.

Terry Pratchett takes fairies back to their more sinister origins in The Wee Free Men and subsequent novels. They tell the story of Tiffany Aching, who must rescue her brother Wentworth and the Baron’s son Roland from the Queen of the Fairies. The queen uses trickery and magic to try to stop Tiffany, and lives in and controls a dream-like land.

Your Fairies

So how would you present fairies if you were to include them in a novel? Would they be the sinister type of ancient folklore, who kidnap babies and must be warded off with iron? Or the playful, prankster type, like Puck and Tinkerbell? Are they demons or the dead, or a hidden race of nymphs?

What are some of your favourite portrayals of fairies in literature or film?

For articles on fantasy, ancient history, and writing fiction, visit Alice Leiper’s website, Ally’s Desk.

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4 years ago

Now I’m really gonna write an evil fairy. I love evil version of sweet creatures

Kirsten Mortensen
7 years ago

Some more terrific sources to get you thinking about fairies and how they fit into the modern world:

Behaving As If the God in All Life Mattered by Machaelle Small Wright;

Dancing in the Shadows of the Moon by Machaelle Small Wright;

The Magic of Findhorn by Paul Hawken;

Meeting Fairies: My Remarkable Encounters with Nature Spirits by R. Ogilvie Crombie;

Any of several books by Dorothy Maclean, Eileen Caddy, or Peter Caddy.

These books will introduce you to Findhorn and Perelandra, gardens helped by conscious cooperation with nature spirits.

I’ve pubbed one novel that is something of a riff on that topic — a biologist starts “seeing” fairies when she begins working an organic farm; my current WIP is also exploring the idea of fairies as energy forms that — at times — can be perceived by humans, or even willfully intrude into our lives.

@Jill — it has a Cottingley Fairies angle, too 🙂

I can also feel them myself, but honestly, they kind of frighten me . . .

7 years ago

Seeing the portrayal of fairies and how they are depicted in popular media/culture change throughout is always absolutely fascinating. Tinkerbell, the watered-down Disney version whose spite is interpreted as mere childish jealousy, is markedly different from the sharp-toothed fae creatures of fantasy who would not hesitate to devour the same children that Tinkerbell willingly protects. An interesting comparison!

Annie Marie Peters
Annie Marie Peters
7 years ago

Very informative introduction to the magical world of fairies! Thanks for putting together this research. It’s interesting to see how many of your other blog readers appreciate these creatures and use them in their own work too.

Doug H
Doug H
7 years ago

I’m personally a fan of the norse alfar – ljosalfar (light-elves), svartalfar (dark-elves) and so on. There’s evidence they were already present in pre-Christian times, and were a robust part of the cosmology and religion. There are a lot of unknowns as well, but that’s part of what makes researching them so interesting. I’m less familiar with the more popular Welsh/Celtic version of the fae, though I know a bit about those as well. But for further reading, maybe take a look at what the norse had to say about the fae.

KC Trae Becker
7 years ago

Fairies are hugely important in my WIP, too. I’m attempting to portray my own invented comprehensive explanation of fairies, revealed slowly over the course of five books, while telling a fun, complex story about kids that encounter them.

Thanks for the references and recommendations for further research! I’ll be sure to check each one of them out. Fairies rock!

Lorna Smithers
7 years ago

Great article- well written and comprehensive. I take alot of inspiration from Celtic and Welsh Fairy Lore, I’ve found W.Y.Evans Wentz ‘The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries,’ Wirt Sykes ‘British Goblins’ and W. Jenkyn Thomas ‘The Welsh Fairy Book’ to be the most comprehensive.

I’m also interested in the faerie lore of my local area and have found James Bowker’s ‘Goblin Tales of Lancashire’ to be a great source of inspiration.

As a pagan I believe faeries are real, and they can be just as magical, beautiful or terrible, tricksy and malevolent as in the myths. They often find their way into my poems one way or the other.

If anyone’s interested this a write up of a local legend about a fairy funeral

Sarah McCabe
7 years ago

I think informative articles like this should definitely have their sources cited. I have never heard of some of these theories on the origins of fairies. Some don’t really make any sense. I would be interested in reading more about those theories, but the author didn’t give any sources.

Antonio del Drago
Reply to  Sarah McCabe
7 years ago

The articles on this site are written for a popular audience, so they don’t usually include citations or sources.

There would be the expectation of sources if this was a site geared towards scholarly or academic pursuits. But we purposely try to avoid coming across as too academic, as fantasy writing attracts people from all walks of life.

That being said, offering sources for further reading can certainly be helpful. If you ask the author to share sources, I’m sure that she would be glad to oblige. But citing sources in an article such as this for a popular writing site is not expected.

Sarah McCabe
Reply to  Antonio del Drago
7 years ago

I find it troubling that informative articles are not expected to share sources or documentation simply because the audience is “popular”. This suggests that there is also no standard of accuracy in an informative article. I should think that even fantasy writers, of all walks of life, would want the information they collect for research, which could well include an informative article on a fantasy writing site, to be factual.

This particular article looks to me like a shortened version of the wikipedia article on Fairies, which doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.

Antonio del Drago
Reply to  Sarah McCabe
7 years ago

I can assure you that this article was not plagiarized or even summarized from Wikipedia.

The author is an expert on mythology, with degrees in ancient history and archeology. She was summarizing her own knowledge of the subject. If there is overlap with a Wikipedia entry, that’s because both the entry and this article are offering introductory overviews of the same subject.

Regarding the issue as to whether or not informative articles must cite sources, many excellent publications do not do this. I read a very informative article on virtual reality in Popular Mechanics the other day. The author summarized the latest developments in the field, but did not provide a list of sources. Most magazines take this same approach. That does not mean that the articles in these publications have no standard of accuracy, or are not factual.

In my day job I’m a professor. When students hand in papers, I expect them to include citations and a bibliography. That’s the standard in academia. But in magazines and blogs, the expectations are different.

In any case, I’ve been enjoying the articles on your mythopoesis blog, as I too consider Tolkien to be my author-model. His influence has shaped my own life in dramatic ways, as it has yours. I appreciate your comments, and hope that you will continue to be involved in our community at Mythic Scribes.

Jill K. Sayre
7 years ago

I wrote a reality-based book, set in modern times, that got published last year about the importance of believing in the esoteric, like fairies. My story also referred a lot to the fairy craze in the 1920s, started by the Fox sisters and the Cottingley Fairies in England.

I did a lot of research, which your article expresses so beautifully, and I asked myself several questions as I wrote, including: Do people believe in them in these modern times? What would it take to convince someone they are real today?

For me, fairies embody the peaceful and healing powers of nature. They are Earth angels, if you will. Ever notice the way you feel after taking a walk outside? Refreshed, happy, with a clearer mind. Perhaps we have the fairies to thank for that.

Lorinda J. Taylor
7 years ago

Three things immediately jump to mind. First, Tolkien, who scorned the idea of a Faerie of tiny sprites sitting on flowers (see his Smith of Wooten Major, where he lectures readers on the subject at the end). Second, Rhiannon circling the mound in Evangeline Walton’s Prince of Annwn. Third,Keats’ poem La Belle Dame sans Merci, in which a wandering knight becomes a thrall to a fairy woman, a traditional theme.

I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful—a faery’s child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light
And her eyes were wild.

Read the poem at Bartleby

Darrell Pursiful
7 years ago

I really enjoy the fairies in Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden novels. In particular, I love the fact that he has found a way to display the fae in all their variety: from tiny winged pranksters to malevolent goblins all the way to terrifying forces of nature.

Antonio del Drago
7 years ago

Fairies play a key role in my current work-in-progress, but they are of the ancient, sinister variety. They don’t have wings, but are fierce and human-sized.

As far as portrayals of fairies in film go, I always liked the fairy in Ridley Scott’s Legend. She is a petty, dangerous trickster, who hides her true identity from her “friends”.

It’s also interesting how sanitized fairies have become in recent years. In the first animated Peter Pan movie from Disney, Tinkerbell is petty and jealous. But in the more recent Tinkerbell films, which my daughter loves, Tinkerbell is sweet and kind. While I also appreciate these movies (and really like the latest one, The Pirate Fairy), these fairies are worlds away from the creatures of mythology.

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