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Faeries and Folklore – Part One: An Introduction

Tinkerbell by Benjamin CarréWe’re going to talk about faeries. For the purposes of both my sanity and authenticity, leave any and all notions of Disney’s Tinker Bell at the door. Tinker Bell is a pretty fiction dreamed up in order to invite little girls to dress in frilly gowns that glitter and sparkle in the sun. Faeries are far too associated with all that is pink and feminine and girly, which not only offends my fluid sense of what defines what is masculine and what is feminine—but is downright false.

Go with me here, but we’re talking about real faeries; the kind that haunted the darkness of Great Britain long before even Shakespeare took it upon himself to romanticise them. We’re going to talk about the complicated and unfailingly cruel creatures who inhabited that deep darkness between everything our ancestors knew and everything that they didn’t. When there is an open and vast space between what we know to exist and the boundaries of that knowledge, our instinct—our need—is to fill that space. That’s supposedly the theory behind why faerie folklore exists: what we know as fae and their ilk are the creatures that populated that darkness, that unknown space through which the meagre lights from candles and lanterns couldn’t penetrate.

Titania by Matt DixonOr, we have such a vast wealth of faerie folklore because they exist. You never know and with the fae it’s always better to err on the side of caution, because they are easily offended and even the fabled good faeries do not take insult well. This is just the introduction, in which we’ll lay out the foundations and build from there, moving through the introduction of the fae towards not only some manner of classification of the different types of fae, but also the closer study of both the more famous and infamous inhabitants of faerieland and their lesser-known brethren; the faeries that exist in obscurity.

Fae have long been a point of fascination for me: something need only suggest the inclusion of faeries and my interest is piqued. (Furthermore, my mother insists I’m a changeling, so there we have it.) The faerie folk are a fascinating bunch, although much of their true mystery and horror has been pared down by stories of good fairies and glittering dust and an overwhelming metaphor for femininity. Which, given the true nature of faeries, is laughable.

However, authors such as the astoundingly knowledgeable anthropologist Elizabeth May and her superb YA début, The Falconer (the first of a trilogy), further compound that fascination—by veering completely from the romantic notion of benevolent faeries. Instead, The Falconer (and others, such as Patrick Rothfuss, with his beglamoured, cloven-hooved Bastas Remmen in the Kingkiller Chronicles; and Jim Butcher, with Harry’s recent trouble with the Red Cap and the assistance of Cu Sith [coo-shee]) holds true to the far more gruesome history and truth behind these creatures.

Red Cap by MacGwyverBut first: what is a faerie? Previously, I’ve talked very slightly about the specific “court” of Gaelic aos sidh / sí (EE-shee) that are usually what people are put in mind of when they think of the fair-of-face creatures found in a considerable amount of urban fantasy fiction—most notably for me, in Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, where the courts of Summer and Winter and the sidh play a recurrent role in Harry Dresden’s very complicated life. We’re going to move far away from the sidh for the time being and concentrate on a boarder view of the fae. In a sense, the doctor-to-the-fae, Dr Lauren Lewis, in the Canadian TV show Lost Girl, is fairly correct when she stated that “fae” is simply the genus—not the species. (We’ll come back to Lost Girl before we close the introduction, as the role of fae in popular media is noteworthy.) This means that there are different kinds of fae. The species of fae can be broken down thus:

1. Brownies, hobs and familiars; live in one house or serve one person and overlap with 2. Faerie guides; often dead; conduct a person to faeries and/or teach them faerie law. 3. Faerie societies; seen in faerie world or on ride; include king and queen. 4. Poltergeist/demon faeries, eventually melt down into tricksters and overlap with 1. [1]

Generally this is accurate across the broad scope of folklore, but there may obviously be exceptions; it’s the nature of the fae to be mischievous and troublesome so it would come as no great surprise if a few faeries decided to slip through the cracks. But using this useful breakdown of species, we’re going to explore the faerie world and shed light on not only their dark and cruel histories, but just why some fae are more notorious than others.

The Phantom Queen by AlyFellSo a faerie can be any one of these things. There’s the notion that there are hundreds of different faeries, but this isn’t strictly true. What there are, more likely, are hundreds of faerie names and really only a handful of significant kinds of faerie, as suggested by the list above. It used to be that everyone believed in the fae—especially in Ireland and Scotland and in the countryside where the closeness of cities wasn’t felt in the vastness of dark British nights and grim summers. People would protect their homes with charms and cold iron and even use the Bible to ward the faeries off. And woe betide those who invite a faerie inside!

Then there’s the notion of the divide in between the faeries, especially in Gaelic/Scottish folklore; the faeries who needed mortals and were thusly not directly cruel to them. There are stories of mortal midwives and the faerie children they delivered; faerie food that was not nourishing and therefore mortal food was required, and so on. Ultimately these two differing sides, the “Seelie” and “Unseelie” Courts became widely known as two differing “houses” of fae with different motivations. Similar to the more romantic notions of the Summer and Winter courts, but less directly attached to the seasons.

Lost Girl (poster)We’ll explore these two courts later on in the series, but this divide leads perfectly into the fact that this split between these two faerie courts/worlds is a generally accepted truth in folklore fiction. Take Lost Girl, the story of an unaligned succubus who refuses to choose between the Light and the Dark. Stay your caution: there is no room for light equals good or dark equals bad in the world of Lost Girl. Things are just different; neither side is wholly bad or wholly good. Which is a refreshing representation of the two opposing sides of fae. To a point, in the Dresden books, Winter is seen as being the more villainous side, but this idea is slowly and carefully dismantled throughout Harry’s experiences with the faerie courts. But for a popular TV show to exercise such moral ambiguity is, to me, an impressive move. It makes Lost Girl into a wealth of accessible folklore, twisted only slightly to the whims of its creative writers—as is their right. (We all do it.)

Everyone knows something about fae, whether they think they do or not. Knowing the fae is like knowing bits of Italian; there are words you know that you don’t even know are Italian. “Wailing like a bean-sídhe”? Yes; she’s a faerie. The spelling warps from the original Gaelic and Scottish (Bean Shìth), but a banshee is still a banshee and she’s one of the more famous faeries that people don’t even know that they know. Many think she’s a spirit, or even a normal woman who just happens to be cursed to scream. But no, she’s a faerie. Specifically, she’s considered part of the aoi sí—but we’ll not complicate matters further at this stage. Another example? Cat Sidh? You’ve at least heard the name perhaps (especially if you’re a Final Fantasy fan –and despite the fact that cu sith/cat sidh is actually a dog…). And what about the Leanansidhe (lannan-shee)? There are a great many of the aos sí that people know without realising.

The Descent by WhiteLeythIt makes senses that it would be The Good Neighbours whose names are more readily handed down—the faeries who are appeased by offerings and spoken of gently, though are generally thought to be far less wicked than other groupings of fae. These are the beautiful faeries you know about, the pretty faerie queens and faerie princes. But they can also be just as terrible and hideous as any of the other more monstrous fae. Whether this is attributed to a glamour, one way or the other, depends entirely on the fae.

Throughout the next three parts of this series, we’re going to look at the origins of the fae and their transformation throughout folklore and religion (and why they transformed throughout telling and retelling), paying attention not just to the aos sí, but rather all four ‘categories’ cited by Purkiss’ list. We’ll be delving into faerie lore and revealing the darker side of the creatures you think you know. We’ll specifically look at the most notorious faeries, the most forgotten, and those of gentler fame. Finally, we’ll study faeries in a modern sense, from their appearance in the “persona cards” of the Shin Megami TenseiPersona” video game franchise, the similarities between certain faeries and other folklore figures, to how SFF writers use faeries and their folklore throughout fiction in a modern sense.

– – –

[1] “Introduction: Fear of Fairies”, At The Bottom Of The Garden: A Dark History of Fairies, Hobgoblins and Other Troublesome Things. Purkiss, D., p8 (New York University Press, 2003)

This article was originally posted on April 21, 2014.

Title image by Matt Dixon.

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6 Comments

  1. Do you anticipate looking beyond the British Isles? There are lots of faery-analogues in cultures all around the world, but that may be more than is reasonable to handle well in a four-part series. Either way, I’m looking forward to what you have to say!

  2. Elyse says:

    Karen Marie Moning’s Darkfever series also covers the fae quite well- really encompasses the different types, how Unseelie/Seelie both have their good and bad characteristics. And Laurell Hamilton’s Merry Gentry series, again showcasing the different kinds of fae and their mythological characteristics, again heavy emphasis on the Dark Court and Light Courts not being all that they appear and having positive and negative attributes to each.

  3. Great post! I’ve wanted to find out about the origins of faeries for a long time, and this was a great overview.

  4. Nice overview– I love the darker look at the fae. The legends make them seem so creepy and alien.
    So do me a favor and correct my Gaelic mythological history if it’s wrong: but did the fair folk descend from the Tuatha de Dannan? After they were defeated they were driven underground into what I think were later considered faerie rings.

  5. Gabrielle says:

    I love the darker side of the fae. I actually stumbled on this site about a month ago and it’s been invaluable to me. All of the information, reviews and especially the worldbuilding articles.

  6. B says:

    “especially if you’re a Final Fantasy fan –and despite the fact that cu sith/cat sidh is actually a dog…)”

    No, the cait sith/cat shee is a fairy cat. The cu sith/coo shee is a fairy dog. There were both.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cat_s%C3%ACth

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