A lot of you have heard my vampires-werewolves-zombies rant. For those of you that haven’t, I’ll get to it at some point. Possibly next week, if I have no other ideas. Mostly it has to do why werewolves don’t angst, zombies don’t lurch, and vampires don’t sparkle, but more on that next time.
This week, I’m going to talk about fairies.
Part of this is inspired by my dozenth re-read of Terry Pratchett’s The Wee Free Men. It’s a great book and extremely funny, but it paints a more…traditional view of fairies than popular media suggests.
I’m not sure where this notion that fairies were little glittery things that granted wishes came from. I wonder if Shakespeare isn’t partially to blame for his portrayal of the fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. They steal children and cause chaos, naturally, and have a grand time of it, but their involvement with humans in mostly benign and accidental. Or designed against another fairy, such as the business turning Bottom into an ass.
I think modern fantasy art might have to take the lion’s share of blame for this one. Google or Bing “fairies,” the first thing to pop up will not be the Leannan Sidhe, who sucks the souls from artists and writers. It will be some delicately winged woman, whose clothing only stays on because its been painted there. They will be beautiful, they will be graceful, and perhaps a bit mysterious, but they won’t be dangerous. Even the blood-soaked ones painted by people with more angst than what’s good for them still don’t capture it.
And let’s not even get started on what Disney did to fairies. This isn’t just the chip on my shoulder talking – Disney really sanitized fairies. The closest they ever came was Darby O’Gill and the Little People and I’m not sure they didn’t clean them up there either.
The best description for an old-school fairy: take a shark. Make it a Great White, because they seem to be the smartest of the lot, but are still massive, power-house predators with more teeth than a wood-chipper. Next make it look like a human with the “allure,” “mystery,” and “beauty” knobs turned up to eleven. Now give it the kind of humor that likes whoopie cushions, the temperament of a defunct piece of computer equipment, and a serious dancing/music addiction. Keep the shark-like moral code (is it food? Can I eat it?), but have a bunch of lawyers tack on some serious fine print.
That is what fairies were in the beginning. The wings are optional.
The first fairies jerked stools out from under people, stole children, caused cows dry and chickens to stop laying. They danced people to death and weaseled through little cracks in the rules. “We dare not go a’hunting for fear of little men…” meant the fairies.
On the other hand, they’re not quite as bad as that. They can be…generous, when they feel like it. St. George was said to be reared by fairies. They have been known to grant gifts, though those gifts often have strings attached. They do grant wishes, but usually with a slap-in-the-face twist. They do provide advice and place people on the right path, but what their motives for this are, I’m not certain. Cinderella had a fairy godmother and so did Jack.
Of course, from a sociological standpoint, the fairies were just a way to explain things that people didn’t understand. They were also a way to pass the buck (“I didn’t do it. Honest. It was the fairies.”)
It’s not any sillier than giving machinery personality or believing that dice like you or dislike you.