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.
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.