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Sídhe in Fantasy: From Gaelic Origins, To The Modern Market

Lady Rosenred by MethyssRecently on Fantasy-Faction, Janie wrote an excellent article on some of the origins behind faeries in mythology. This piece will both go a little further back, and a little farther forward: I’m going to talk about fae in a less conventional sense in regards to modern SFF, as well as exploring their origins in Gaelic mythology. Mainly, though, where Janie looked mostly at the mythology, I want to show that fae (I’ll not call them “faeries”, as it makes me think of three-year-olds in pink tutus brandishing fluffy wands, with net wings!) are very relevant in fantasy, still, and that just as several other races have been getting makeovers and being reintroduced into the genre, so are fae.

If you’re not convinced, you’re about to see the fae make a slow and distinguished comeback, think about elves: everyone said they were dead. Well, the elf is dead; long live the elf. I raise you Dwenda, Shict, and Chris Evans’ revamped “Iron Elves”. If we really want to split hairs, I raise you the elves from the Dragon Age games, where the once-regal race has been given a bit of a different approach.

But, we’re not here to talk about elves: we’re here to talk about my other love. Yes, I happen to love fae. The potential with fae is nearly infinite: such an underdone, unsung, untouched race, one brimming with potential and plenty of fresh ground to dig your heels into.

When first thinking of fae, due to the modern connotations of faeries, people might write them off as “girly things”, and perhaps the amount of literature out there featuring female changelings as urban fantasy detectives, or kick-ass changelings masquerading about the mortal world, leads people to really buy into the fact that “fae are for girls”. After all, what bloke wants to admit he digs reading about sparkly faeries that shake glitter from their wings?

Actually, I do. Because fae aren’t like that. In fact, I’m not sure they ever were. They certainly aren’t like that in fantasy.

Changing by Benita WincklerBefore I give three particularly less than sparkly examples of fae in SFF today, I want to talk about the creatures from which the fae in SFF really originate: the sídhe. Traditionally transcribed as “aos sí” (pronounced EE-shee), a much earlier form of the alternative “aes sídhe” (EE shee, again)—shortened very regularly, if incorrectly, in English to “sídhe” (shee, of course)—these creatures are (arguably) a type of fae, and are very likely from whom our much more humanesque and less bewinged depictions of fae originate.

Dresden fans will immediately pick up something here: sídhe. That’s right, we’re talking about those guys. Now, the way in which Butcher presents his fae is fantastic and very true to the nature of these kinds of creatures in traditional folklore and mythology. Butcher has it that there are different types of fae creatures, and this is an accurate nod to the base roots of fae in Gaelic mythology/folklore. Butcher has chore-loving brownies (not the edible kind, so please; do not eat the brownies) and sprites that really enjoy milk and honey, and do indeed flap about on little wings. He also has fae queens and princesses and lords and nobles. These do not zip about on wings. In fact, in description, they might be closer to how modern SFF fans see elves, rather than fae.

But, Gaelic mythology says no; Gaelic mythology says “fae”. If we take at look at the very original view of the sídhe, we’ll find that they are scarcely mentioned as “fae” or even as sídhe in many tales, due to the reverence they were regarded with. People believed they might insult the sídhe somehow and so referred to them as “The Good Neighbours”, “The Fair Folk” and sometimes just as “The Folk”. If you’ve heard the phrase “touch wood” or “knock on wood”, then you now know at least one of its origins: people would knock on bits of wood so as not to “jinx” what was being said if there happened to be little sprites or lesser fae living or playing inside it. And these little fae were renowned for being mischievous—and sometimes more spiteful than others.

Sidhe Male by Kekai KotakiIn early Gaelic tales, the sídhe were seen as deified ancestors, tantamount to gods, and worthy of deference. The names suggested above all described them as “people of peace”. Usually they were described as being beautiful and elegant, but they could also be terrifying and hideous. If we run with our first example of sídhe-like fae in SFF—The Dresden Files—much of what we’ve already talked about is very accurate: Butcher’s done a good job of really conveying the Gaelic side of the fae.

Butcher’s fae races are literally divided into several “racial-subtypes”: the sídhe are the “high fae”; the lesser fae range from brownies to sprites and pixies to typical faeries; ogres and trolls are classed as fae creatures as well and they occupy the same world, and the half-children of these races are “changelings” just like any other half-blood progeny.

In fact, Butcher presents a very varied and colourful view of the fae. Instead of just featuring the sídhe—the faerie queens and their noble servants—and small, winged little fae, Butcher offers humans with the power of the fae courts (Summer and Winter), as well as the notion that changelings must Choose which side of their blood with which to place affinity. The sídhe courts are a constant game of supernatural politics and the upholding of the balance of power.

The next example I’m going to use is technically a cheat, and yet technically it’s just as valid as the example above, and the one to follow after. Whilst it might not seem so at first, the banshees in Mark Charan Newton’s Nights of Villjamur and City of Ruin are actually straight out of Gaelic mythology—with a few adjustments, of course.

Banshee by gothika248I bet you didn’t expect to find fae in Newton’s work. Well, there they are. The term banshee is an anglicised spelling of the Irish “bean sídhe” (pronounced the same way as “banshee”), which, although it has come to mean a spirit who wails when someone dies, simply means “woman of the sídhe”. Newton’s banshees are of the keening kind, and although you might not label them as fae at first thought, if it looks like a fae (with some of Newton’s characteristic touch, of course), is spelled like a fae, and does what a fae does, then it might just be a fae. In City of Ruin, Newton’s BanHe is an example of a half-fae: in some terms, this classifies him as a changeling, since rather than referring to fae babies swapped for human babies in the cradle, without the parents’ knowledge—much like in Tad Williams’ The War of the Flowers—it has come to mean a half-blood, as well.

Having talked about fantasy that really uses the sídhe in an accurate fashion, and fantasy that mixes ideas up a little, I want to talk about another fantasy that presents them accurately—not necessarily to the letter of some Gaelic mythology, like Butcher does—but yet still retains much of the true mystery of the fae, unlike the two examples given. Since I’m talking about “unisex fantasy”, fantasy that doesn’t primarily lend itself to strong, feminine protagonists, and therefore pursuing the idea (at least on a very base level) that fae = girly (I believe I’m talking about October Daye, et al,), I’m referring to the fae presence in Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles.

If we’re talking about a pureblood fae, it’s fairly rare to see these characters presented as men. Think about all the faerie queens we have, think about the sídhe in Dresden—always women. Rothfuss might include a flirtation (ooh-er!) with Felurian, but more than that, a fae royal is a major member of the cast at the heart of both books so far: Bast.

The Wise Man's Fear (cover 2)Bast is a fae. In fact, he’s a prince: Prince of Twilight, Son of Remmens, if we’re being entirely precise. Bast’s “faeness” isn’t a major part of the first story—although it does feature—but in the second book in the series, his nature is more and more important: the book even finishes on a relevant point to his race, in essence.

Despite being referred to very openly as fae (perhaps it’s the difference between “fae” and “faerie” that automatically switches peoples’ viewpoint subconsciously?), there are none of the usual “negative” connotations surrounding this presentation of fae, despite the fact that we know very little about them, really. We know they are powerful, we know they have complicated hierarchies, and we know they are hurt by iron—all very commonplace aspects of the fae. Rothfuss’ fae are good with glamours and if Bast resides presently in the mortal world, it’s entirely feasible that other fae do this (unless of course we find a particular reason for his presence in later books!), which is another common aspect of how fae are conveyed when we’re not dealing with sparkly wings and glitterdust.

If you look at the three examples here, they are all very different. There are others, but these illustrated the point I wanted to make; that fae aren’t a girly race. They’re not cliché, stereotypical, or reserved for children’s stories. They are, in fact, a very real and relevant part of modern, adult SFF—and they’re woefully underdone in good, epic fantasy.

This article was originally posted on December 21, 2011.

Title image by Benita Winckler.

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9 Comments

  1. xiagan says:

    Great article, thank you! Got a few books I have to read out of it too. 🙂
    There are even more famous/popular examples of the Sidhe out in Fantasy:
    Tad Williams has them in his MEMORY, SORROW AND THORN-series (the dragonbone chair, etc) and Terry Pratchett’s elves (first in LORDS AND LADIES) are more or less the folk too.
    “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.
    No one ever said elves are nice.
    Elves are bad.” (Terry Pratchett, Lords and Ladies)
    Even Bast and Felurian in Rothfuss’s KINGKILLER CHRONICLES belong to the Fae in the origin meaning of this word.

  2. Karen says:

    I enoyed this article on the various brances of the Sidhe tree and one of your comparisons has sent me over to Amazon to find The Kingkiller Chronicles. Thanks. I do wonder if you are familiar with C.J. Cherryh books The Dreamstone and The Tree of Sword and Jewels. When it comes to protraits of the Sidhe, these two books are very close to what I have read and you describe as the core of the Sidhe myth.

  3. […] first: what is a faerie? Previously, I’ve talked very slightly about the specific “court” of Gaelic aos sidh / sí (EE-shee) that […]

  4. I truly enjoyed this article, and am a great fan of how Butcher handles not only the sídhe but all of the mythological and folkloric elements he deals with. Now it looks like I have some other books to add to my ever-growing Amazon wish list!

    For what it’s worth, my own YA series prominently features the same kind of sinister, uncanny sídhe but with a more “family-friendly” approach.

  5. Simon Ellberger says:

    Some other recent fantasy books that focus on the Fae are: “The Exile: Book One of the Fae” by C.T. Adams; “Trailer Park Fae” by Lilith Saintcrow; “The Riven Wyrde Saga” by Graham Austin-King (also available as three separate books: “Fae – The Wild Hunt”; “Fae – The Realm of Twilight”; and “Fae – The Sins of the Wyrde”); “The Stolen: An American Faerie Tale,” “The Forgotten: An American Faerie Tale,” and “Three Promises: An American Faerie Tale Collection,” all by Bishop O’Connell; “Of Blood and Honey,” and “And Blue Skies From Pain” by Stina Leicht. Kevin Hearnes’ “The Iron Druid Chronicles” also features them many times.

  6. Ken Hughes says:

    Excellent description, both of the fae and some good places to find them in not-too-sparkly forms. Between Butcher’s capricious Courts and the secrets Pat Rothfuss is slowly revealing,

    I wonder, when you say fae seem similar to elves, was there ever a really clear distinction between them? The Gaelic fae seem to be drawn from most of the same concepts as the original muddled legends of elves (and dwarves) before Tolkien picked the versions of the latter two that we think of today. Fae tend to be wilder and less human than Elrond et al, but I think that mostly speaks to how Tolkien dragged the elves out into the light and made people.” Iron-fearing, child-snatching creatures are often called non-Tolkienian “elves” these days as well as fae; would that be a valid historical term or just mixing in a too-different being’s name onto the fae model?

    I suppose we can bring myths together or apart any way we want, and it’s an author’s job to pick the combination he wants and play that off our expectations. Fae are easy to compare to elves, and to ominous nature spirits, which lets them shade into being minor gods. And I expect the fae would be the first to claim that title too, or else to say that we humans are too quick to tie ourselves up with names.

  7. Ken Hughes says:

    –Whoops. Should have read your related series before I mused too much on elves vs fae.

    It might be that the word “elf” is mixed up in some folklore with the fae, either when the legends do mingle or because casual users like the e-word and use it in stories that are more about the fae. You hope elves get replaced by fae more, and it looks like that’s what’s happening these days. Tolkien used the word for a very civilized folk, but many of the stories that follow him might use the word but have been drawn into fae territory.

  8. Lyle says:

    Please check out Mike Shevdon’s fantasy series of books Courts of the Feyre starting with Sixty One Nails. He’s a cracking author & his books incorporate some really strange & true ceremonies & laws that are still practiced today.. The Quit Rents Ceremony which happens every year in the Royal Courts of Justices is used amazingly in the first book in the series. The books are all well worth reading & give a very modern & cool take on the Fae.

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