Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.
-William Butler Yeats, The Collected Poems
Elves are wonderful. They provoke wonder.
Elves are marvellous. They cause marvels.
Elves are fantastic. They create fantasies.
Elves are glamorous. They project glamour.
Elves are enchanting. They weave enchantment.
Elves are terrific. They beget terror.
The thing about words is that meanings can twist just like a snake, and if you want to find snakes look for them behind words that have changed their meaning.
-Terry Pratchett, Lords and Ladies
In the countryside, the old stories seemed to come alive around me; the faeries were a tangible aspect of the landscape, pulses of spirit, emotion, and light. They “insisted” on taking form under my pencil, emerging on the page before me cloaked in archetypal shapes drawn from nature and myth. I’d attracted their attention, you see, and they hadn’t finished with me yet.
-Brian Froud, on his great works
Fairies. Elves. Goblins. Banshees. The contemporary umbrella has expanded to include mermaids and other separate beings into the vast court of the fair folk, and I could not be happier. I’ve always, always had a thing for fairies. Not light and whimsical creatures, but the old school ones. The cautionary tales that you’d tell to children a few centuries back to warn them away from dangerous rivers, predator-filled forests or other areas where mischief might turn lethal. A little kid might have enough arrogance to think “I’ll never slip off the rocks and break my neck,” but they can definitely think “if I go too close to the edge a great stone-hag will grab me and slowly eat my face over days and days.”
My affection for fairies probably came from watching and re-watching a lot of 80s and early 90s fantasy pieces, the biggest of which being The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, followed by the short-lived television series The Storyteller. If you have traveled the same paths I have, you will probably recognize all three of those as resulting from the concept art of Brian Froud, up there in the important quotes. Froud has a wonderfully organic way of portraying fairies and all their kin. They look… well, lumpy, covered in growths and gnarls and the same kind of charming disfigurements you will see on trees in the forest or rocks in the field.
I picked up a few Froud art books young and my infatuation kind of blossomed from there out. I started reading a lot of the Grimm Bros translations and, thankfully, by the time I had finished with what the local library had available, the internet had matured enough to make more of the same readily available on crude geocities and angelfire webrings. Yeah, you had to wade through a lot of goofy, cutesy stuff and people who were unhealthily obsessed with Tinkerbell in various states of undress, and a lot of the less creepy, more whimsical forms of fairy artwork being interwoven with the various neo-wiccan (neo-neo-wiccan, I guess? nothing against them at all but they definitely dominated that corner of the internet in the late 90s) groups who liked to include Yeats poetry alongside pictures of forlorn-looking winged girls and advertisements for freshly energized crystals.
This is actually where my love for Yeats came from, rather than sitting around in some musty archive or sitting in a coffee shop reading the classics, so keep in mind that if I sound mocking I am doubly so upon my own head.
Later on I started running into the works of Gaiman and Pratchett and their critical examinations of why fairies tended to be malicious assholes in the old stories, beings who steal children, kill livestock, curse people, spoil crops and more seemingly for kicks. In the old stories they serve as kind of living plot devices or a righteous retribution for breaking a rule that you might not even know about in the first place. Those old stories still hold a place in my heart, but if you’ve been reading my blog for any length of time you probably picked up on how I like exploring the motivation of villains and antagonists to really dig into a tale.
Good fairy stuff, to me, is an exploration of how our ethics – our moral codes, even the ones that seem completely obvious and universal across human cultures – are still a construct of our race, and assuming that other beings will play by those rules is a level of arrogance that can only be laughed at and then punished. Usually punished in a dreadfully ironic fashion, I might add. Fairies, even evil fairies, typically punch up rather than down. Like a good modern horror movie they’ll eat the bad guys even more happily than the good ones, even if they have to mow down a few innocents to get to the smug asshole in the group. They are an instrument of retribution that does a whole lot of collateral damage in the process, a supernatural bomb with a trigger we can’t really comprehend.
It’s almost a cosmic horror story, or an alien tale, when you think about it. The tension of a good fairy story comes from not knowing how they are going to react, or the rising dread because we realize what they’re going to do before the blundering hero does. The creepiest, scariest fairies aren’t the malicious ones that set out to hurt people. It’s the fairies that don’t understand the concept of pain because they can’t feel it themselves that really send a chill down my spine. It’s one thing to imagine yourself at the mercy of a torturer, another thing entirely to be tortured by the equivalent of a sociopathic child with mystical powers. A torturer you might be able to reason with, or you can understand why they’re doing what they’re doing, but with the latter? It’s so different from you that not only are you subject to seemingly random whims but you have no idea how to get it to stop.
I think Pratchett really does the best in Lords and Ladies. His elves are the epitome of this concept. They might think they’re doing the equivalent of tickling you when they’re causing you so much pain that your mind shatters beyond repair. They barely regard human beings as sentient, thinking of us more along the lines of ornamentation that looks equally good broken as it does whole.
One of my favorite games, and one that I didn’t have the opportunity to play much of, was White Wolf’s second attempt at a fairy setting with Changeling: The Lost. The first Changeling was a fairly optimistic running commentary on the power of creativity and the importance of maintaining the spark of childishness in the face of crushing banality, but the second one is more like an extended metaphor for abuse. Taken to extremes, at times, that I find a little too much (you can easily read into a narrative that abuse makes people magic rather than it changing the victims forever, creating cycles of violence and more) but exploring some really interesting concepts of life with the fairies. How alien and strange they would be. A fairy queen who is taken by the brightness of a student and makes that literal by turning him into a permanently lit candle who must suffer in agony for eternity or until fairyland turns to dust. Another one who, for reasons completely unknown to the protagonist, enjoys pulling peoples’ eyes out and magically putting them back in for hours at a time while the subject is conscious the entire time. It’s like the ancient folklore version of the creepiest damn alien abduction stories ever, and it’s not an angle you see explored very often. More and more so in recent years, for which I am incredibly happy, but compared to a lot of other horror critters out there? Not so much.
You’ll probably laugh, but this was actually not planned out at all: the latest book I finished as I was planning out this post ended up being The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales by a veritable menagerie of contributors. As you might guess, I loved it. Seanan McGuire is at the top of her game writing about a gritty, old western take on Red Riding Hood with a few twists and that sets the tone of the entire collection: two parts familiar, two parts new and exciting. There’s a brilliant feminist undertone to the book (as you might expect with authors like Catherynne Valente and Amal El Mohtar throwing their hats in the literary ring) and it does a great job of pointing out a lot of the misogyny present in old folk stories, and then ripping that all up and putting it down in a new pattern. The stories are accompanied by brief authorial notes talking about growing up on these tales, coming back to them as an adult and realizing how completely messed up and horrible they are, and then explaining how and why they each took the new angle that they did. Seeing behind the scenes like that is one of my favorite things ever and I wish more anthologies did so.