Faeries and Folklore – Part Three: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Last time we looked at how faeries have evolved, through some of their integral folklore as well as the genre as a whole. Some changes have been marked, others more subtle. The same goes for the faeries who constantly bask in the spotlight, one way or another; famous or infamous in folklore and stories written thereafter. There are plenty of famous faeries, so we’ll tackle those first.
When people think of faeries, specifically relating to folklore, maybe the image conjured is something from Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, with Titania, the faerie queen and her court. The tiny, wee faeries of Shakespeare’s favour, no bigger than cowslip and elfin in form, are a far cry from the more humanesque offerings found hither and thither throughout literature, but they are one of the more famous forms faeries take in peoples’ imaginations. Famous faeries such as Peter Pan’s Tinkerbell is one such faerie, with the image of Sleeping Beauty’s fairy godmothers close behind. These faeries are faithful to Shakespeare’s fancy; these are the faeries of his poetry, which was some of the first faerie-centred poetry in Britain. Here we are introduced to faeries that are subject to some poetic licence, ranging in size from fitting easily inside acorns and slumbering inside flowers, to being widely accepted as childishly diminutive. Curiously, this image isn’t unique to English literature. In a Danish poem, the ballad of “Eline of Villenskov” we read:
“Out then spake the smallest Trold;
No bigger than an ant;—
Oh! Here is come a Christian man,
His schemes I’ll sure prevent.”
Naturally, ants are not the size of children, giving further weight to the notion of poetic expression. In this sense it is in fact difficult to put an actual size and stature on the faeries of Shakespearian literature, especially when, their appearances taken into account, many of the dwarves from various poems of a similar time period are more likened with the wee folk than with the stout dwarves found so readily as a counterpart to the Alder races in Nordic mythology. Interestingly enough, there are several points wherein mythology and folklore take quite opposite stances on the manner in which the same or similar creatures are described.
At one point, elves were perhaps synonymous with faeries in British folklore, yet a cursory glance at Nordic mythology suggests the elven races—both light and dark—were far removed from the miniature characters that permeate the romantic prose of Shakespeare’s time. Images change and differ and evolve depending on the fancy of the author. The same is true of faeries in our own literature.
One notion that hasn’t altered much, is the notion of a faerie queen at the head of a faerie court. Far less common is the idea of a faerie king. Titania might have been referenced by such a name only once by Shakespeare, and never by another—but in essence he was referring to Queen Mab, who appears later in the same role as faerie queen in place of “Titania”. Furthermore, the name “Mab” appears to reference dialects of both Wales and Brittany, dubbing the faerie queen as “childlike” or “infantlike”. A somewhat fitting epithet to one who:
In shape no bigger than an agate-stone
On the fore-finger of an alderman.” (Romeo and Juliet, of Queen Mab)
If we take a look at Queen Mab in modern faerie lore, we find she is transformed into a fully-grown woman and is usually placed at the head of the faerie courts of winter and/or darkness; a counterpart to Titania, who has become the Summer Queen. This is especially true of Jim Butcher’s the Dresden Files, where the courts of Winter and Summer are ruled over by Mab and Titania respectively. These are essentially “roles” rather than titles since, in Butcher’s lore, each position is in and of itself a “mantle” and is borne by whomever occupies the position. This renders the names into mere titles of office.
Titania, Mab—the faerie queen—is probably one of the more famous faeries of folklore.
But now let’s talk about Odin. At the name an assortment of images are conjured, from the Odin of Norse mythology to the armoured friend/foe from several Final Fantasy games. However, in the sense of faerie folklore, Odin—or Woden—is supposedly the original leader of the Wild Hunt in England, as he once was in Scandinavia, where the Wild Hunt in the form it is most-commonly described originated. Atop his eight-legged mount, Slepnir, Odin led the hunt, often heard but not seen. In the original tales of the Wild Hunt, Odin and his host chased the “harmless little wood-wives instead of the souls of damned men”. It was common for the devil to replace any influential god and unsurprisingly, Odin’s traditional claim to the dead made him easily replaced by Satan.
The Wild Hunt is far more famous in regards to faerie lore than its leader. Sometimes, Odin is replaced by the Erlking, a name originating in German folklore to refer to the “king of the faeries”. In the Dresden Files the Erlking leads the Wild Hunt. There are several concepts at play within the idea of the Wild Hunt, but at its heart, it describes a host led by its rider, in a merry/sinister chase. In Elspeth Cooper’s The Wild Hunt series, Savin intends to traffic with a divine figure at the head of the hunt and is lent the assistance of her Hounds in return. The hunt in this sense is evil and dark and involves the sundering of a veil between worlds. The nature of the hunt is somewhat less sinister in Butcher’s retelling, although souls who are drawn up into the frenzy and join the hunt, will never be able to leave it. This is especially true of mortals.
Odin is, of course, also a Norse god. However, he isn’t the first figure to be drawn into faerie lore. Many figures appear by name or description in other places throughout both mythology and folklore. The fact that the TV show Lost Girl, which primarily deals with faeries of every kind and type, suggests that at least one facet of Odin—the Wanderer—is likened to the fae. There are several suggestions that Odin is linked somehow with the show’s succubus protagonist, who is also fae. One thing in particular that Lost Girl can be admired for, is exploring the depths of faerie folklore and not simply sticking with the faeries and creatures most well-known. From sirens to the Leanansidhe, selkies to kappa, a wide range of creatures are given a few moments of fame.
Many faeries in standard folklore resemble the spirits, monsters, ghosts and ghouls of other cultures, ranging from Japanese water demons (kappa, which resemble the grindylow), to the fates-like Norn who controls the destinies of men. It is easy to suggest that anything non-human might indeed be called a faerie, especially with even faerie cats and dogs being legitimate denizens of the faerie worlds.
Cu Sith and Cait Sith (coo-shee, cat-shee) are faerie spirits in many versions of folklore, with the former sometimes being synonymous with “black dogs”. In essence, the two are usually presented as either spirit-like creatures that appear entirely as animals. They are not usually shapeshifters. Black dogs are traditionally associated with death and the omens surrounding death; they are unlucky shadows and are difficult to get rid of. In Harry Potter the black dog Harry sees in his tealeaves is given by his divination professor to be a sign of looming death or danger. The YA novel, Black Dog, by Rachel Nuemeier presents black dogs in a different fashion, likening them more to werewolves and shapeshifters. Usually faerie hounds are white in colour, with red ears, but Cu Sith specifically is green in colour. These are far rarer in folklore than actual black dogs.
The Cait Sith is ordinarily presented as a Highlands faerie cat, described as being large and black with a white spot on its breast. Its fur is said to stand on edge, as erect as bristles, when angry. A common belief stated that these faerie cats were in fact transformed witches, instead of faeries at all. Big Ears, a monstrous demonic cat shares some folklore with the Cait Sith, in spite of being quite different. An abhorrent practise linked to the Cait Sith and Big Ears was the “Taghairm”, wherein live cats would be roasted over spits and turned, tortured for four days and nights, until Big Ears appeared to silence the screams. Big Ears would then grant the wishes of those involved. The last account of this was cited in March 1824 in Mull and described in detail in the London Literary Gazette.
Far lesser known even than this canine/feline pair are the bogies and goblins of which children are warned to be cautious. Mean bogies such as the named grindylow-like Jenny Greenteeth are featured in a list of “Nusery Bogies” meant to be told to children at bedtime, encouraging good behaviour and cautiousness. With both the grindylow and Jenny appearing in water, murky or otherwise, it’s easy to see how some bogies might have been added to folklore through the bedtime tales told to children to help keep them safe: staying away from pools and rivers and ponds through fear is a clever way to prevent small children drowning. Other bogies might have been imagined by parents to deter being troubled during the night, such as the Lammikin, who would sneak into a child’s room and await the mother’s arrival at the sound of the child’s cry, only then to drain the mother of blood. When you’re afraid of a vampire sucking your mother dry, it does rather make you think twice about crying for mummy after a nightmare.
Though little heard of outside popular faerie folklore, these creature-faeries are commonplace in the faerie lore of Britain—especially true of Scottish folklore, where many of the most wicked faerie folklore originates.
Many retellings of faerie lore and faerie biography remove the more gruesome elements—often removing them entirely. Faeries have become our new elves, elegant and remote, whilst trolls and goblins and wicked leprechauns have become squarely associated with monsters and things that go bump in the night, removed from their origins as faeries alongside the helpful likes of brownies and the beautiful aoi sí and relegated to the shadows where the creepy things crawl.
In the final part of this series, we’ll take a very sweeping, yet expansive look at just where and when faeries pop up in SFF—whether mentioned as characters or presented more as concepts and symbols—and how they are portrayed when they do.