Faeries and Folklore – Part Four: A History of the Fae
In this final part of our exploration of the fae, it seems appropriate to take a look at not only the varied and expansive wealth of literature and that features fae, or any recognisable incarnation of them, but also a more comprehensive look at their time line. We’ve briefly explored the evolution of the fae, from Irish folklore, through to Shakespeare’s romantic depictions, and to their modern day Disney or urban fantasy cousins, but the long and fluid history of the fae makes it difficult to succinctly follow. As such, if we head as far back as a pre-Christian time, indeed touching on the relevance of Pagan faeries and early Greco-Roman fae we start to see that two things are true:
As discussed previously, what is, or ever might at one point have been considered a “faerie”, is a very broad spectrum indeed, ranging from supernatural creatures featured in other mythologies with different names, to those that are considered faeries in one mythology yet are absolutely not considered as fae in another. Never mind the fact that at one point or another, anything remotely supernatural that wasn’t necessarily a ghost or phantom, may well have been considered as a faerie at the time.
Secondly, although faeries have evolved in their depictions and presentations, their roots, varied as they are, remain visible. It is usually possible to track any given depiction of a faerie back to the initial seed from which the idea sprouted. For example, the wee faeries of Shakespeare are easily identified as the smaller folk of mythology and folklore, whilst the ethereal fae of the higher courts are recognisable as the lofty aos sí.
Faeries are tricky to classify – especially cross-mythology – because of how vast and varied the descriptions of what qualify a creature as a member of the fae genus are, and how little people can agree on what they look like. Perhaps this is because there are so many differing and contradicting descriptions. However, if we take a step into the weird and wonderful, where we agree, even for a second, that faeries and mythical creatures do indeed exist, the suggestion of “glamours” becomes somewhat obvious. Imagine a faerie fond of trickery, “glamouring” itself three of four different times to give us hobgoblins, gnomes and trolls, only then to reveal itself as a playful water sprite in true form. In many ways, if you take a look at detailed academic studies into faeries, and read up on all the different, yet somehow similar (especially in behaviour) fae, it doesn’t seem a bad hypothesis at all – if a little fanciful.
If we trace a time line way back through myth and folklore and begin looking for similarities and patterns, we find one thing of note: water faeries. Starting at the beginning, where we consider nymphs, nixies and even rusalka as interpretations of fae (although in early accounts such creatures are more commonly viewed as deities), we see that most collections of myth have their own water fae. And it isn’t difficult to imagine why. Water is a large part of most cultures, especially dating back through history. There are rituals for water and equipment to find water. Water was sacred and whether or not we take the leap and suggest then that faeries or deities were drawn to or from these ultimately sacred bodies of water – or, if we hop in the other direction and suggest that deities would have been imagined and worshiped out of superstition and the desire for life-giving water, it is undeniable that water faeries are one of the earlier and more common species of faerie found across widespread lore and myth.
It is interesting to note that when the Romans first invaded Britain, their pantheon wasn’t as it is today. In place of the gods we recognise, were various spirits who were worshipped, were eventually elevated to the position of deities. How many other religions or pantheons might reveal a similar treatment? And depending on the dates of these changes and records of lore and myth, it might be impossible to ever know.
Sometimes, with the kinds and types of faerie being so varied as to fill a large book with encyclopaedic information on them – and with descriptions crossing over between cultures – what we consider to be a faerie becomes a broad spectrum. Interpretations such as in Lost Girl seem to consider any sort of supernatural creature that isn’t a ghost at least related to the fae.
This includes everything from naga to kappa and Baba Yaga to selkies. Indeed, perhaps it is useful to consider faeries in this fashion. Taking into account the creatures we find in fantasy that qualify as “fantastic” and non-human, there are very few who would not share at least some likeness with one or more of the listed faeries categorised in books such as those by Briggs.
Ghosts are easily explained as being different to fae by virtue of description alone. Dragons are arguably either an extinct form of lizard, or at least, a mythological relative of the lizard. Even angels have a specific origin that is usually found in sacred scripture (not only Christian). Even vampires and werewolves (especially the former) have links to faerie creatures, as previously mentioned with the baobhan sith. Only the fae remain so mysterious that it’s difficult to really pinpoint an origin for them as a genus. They permeate folklore; they have always done so, and in their way, osmosing into fantasy and urban fantasy as they do, they are still part of an ever-changing folklore.
Indeed, Briggs mentions often in her studies that “faerie” can describe a great many kinds of supernatural creature. In fact, it seems that the term becomes an umbrella under which all supernatural creatures can fall, excepting those mentioned above. This casts a new light on how we can view and consider faeries in both literature and folklore As long as there have been myths and bodies of folklore, there have been faeries.
Interestingly enough, many of the creatures found in Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them are either directly borrowed from faerie lore, or seemingly influenced by it: including redcaps and the erkling (previously discussed as part of the Wild Hunt folklore), as well as the Japanese kappa and Scottish kelpie. Another indication of how quite literally any creature could be labelled as a faerie. Furthermore, even though Rowling doesn’t specifically say as much (and that included in the glossary of beasts, “fairy” exists as a separate entry), it could be suggested that most of the fantastic beasts examined are essentially faeries themselves, only not called as such. This is of course excepting creatures such as dragons, basilisks and unicorns, whose origins are obvious as possible evolutions of existing creatures.
Whether we examine the school of thought that faeries are good, bad or much like humans, and different from one to the next, we also see the emergence of one accepted fact: from the pixies and sprites of romantic literature, to the faerie queens and courts of Shakespeare, Sarah J Maas, and The Dresden Files, each and every presentation of fae accepts that both these descriptions hold true. In most visitations of the faerie worlds, we see both the wee folk and the higher, loftier beings. It is no longer one or the other. Both exist alongside one another as different types of fae within the bigger tapestry.
And this tapestry is enormous.
Faeries have never been more in fashion than they are now, and I use the term lightly: moreover, faeries and their potential are more visible and noticed. The more we move away from the caricature images of Tinkerbell and other girlish renditions of the fae, and more towards the deep and flawed characters of Celaena Sardothien (A Throne of Glass, Sarah J Maas) and the serious, brooding figures of Kiaran McKay (The Falconer, Elizabeth May), the fae have become precisely what elves and dwarves might become, if the trappings of Tolkien’s worlds can be left behind.
Ironically enough, some of the most human characters are written in under the guise of non-humans: it seems to allow for a certain, immediate detachment wherein the reader is automatically allowed to interpret the character from a starting point, unhindered by any pre-emptive assumptions taken from what people in any given situation are supposed to be like. At least, that’s the impression given from the wealth of faerie-centric literature I’ve explored.
In the same way that Julie Kagawa shows humanity through her shapeshifting dragons in her Talon books, faeries such as Celaena demonstrate that a story told through a non-human character can be especially poignant. In fact, faeries, if taken as a species—in and of themselves, as a race—the way we interpret them across literature can shift to something far more interesting and deep. They are no longer monsters or the perfect ideal of good or evil. They are varied and flawed.
Furthermore, taken through folklore through history, we see the same pattern: the wicked faeries and the good neighbours. Faeries are like us and not like us: but that is precisely wherein the appeal and attraction lies. Glimpsing the world of the faeries, through an entire history of literature and lore, is as if spying on another world, another existence that runs parallel with our own. Briggs and her contemporaries don’t seek to insist that faeries exist, but to merely demonstrate that throughout history, there are thousands of accounts of peoples’ experiences and beliefs wherein the faeries are considered real. This mentality may have been on the wane in more modern times, but even now in places of Celtic origin, superstitions surrounding the fae are as strong as ever.
Whichever way we look at it, there is a growing fascination with the faeries; good, evil or monstrous. From vague images on Persona cards in Japanese games such as the Shin Megami Tensei: Persona series, to Lost Girl’s inclusion of even the strangest faeries, they are everywhere. It is refreshing to see that the faeries are welcomed into literature and no longer penned into a strictly imagined mould controlled by Disney and pedalled towards stereotypes of little girls in pink dresses. The fae are ethereal, monstrous, imperfect and strange, which is precisely as it should be.
Though most common in YA SFF, the potential of the fae should be recognised and spread through into adult SFF. The sheer wealth of possibility is yet to be fully realised and I hope as the current trend towards faeries in YA undoubtedly continues and evolves, that we see a return to more than just humans in our epic fantasy: let Tolkien’s elves (which nobody, save a few writers, dares to touch) be replaced by faeries and fae so that even half of the potential is realised. Unlike the elves, which Tolkien arguably took from elements of myth and folklore, but for the most part, imagined himself, the fae are rooted in the real world and in our folklore so deeply that, should we bother to, the stories waiting to be told could be all the deeper, all the more fantastic and yet all the more relatable, where we see in them, glimpses of our own strange and unusual world.
There are a thousand mysteries in the world—and the fae are certainly not the least of them.