Thursday, August 11, 2011

A Brief Survey of Faerie

The other day at Wordos, I was going to give a short presentation on Writing Elves and Fairies. I took copious notes from Tolkien's On Fairy Stories. I collected various research books, anthologies, and fantasy paperbacks. Alas, when it came time to give my mini-lecture, I discovered that my notes were not in my bag of Books about Fairies, and so I had to improvise wildly.

I said I'd post my notes.  So, without further ado....

Dwarves, Gobblins, Dragons, Trolls, Elves and Fairies have been written about for a very long time. There are several approaches to take when writing about Faerie, Elves, and Fairy Magic, and each of them has their own merits. Tolkien writes that the words elf and fairy are equivalent, but that fairy is a Tudor word popularized by authors like Spenser, Shakespeare and Drayton. Tolkien makes a distinction between fairy stories, dream tales, and adventure, wonder- or marvel stories. More on Tolkien later.

One early source about fairies are the Child Ballads. The elves in these ballads tend appear suddenly and steal people away -- babes, maidens, queens and poets alike. Some are summoned by blowing horns, like Isabel's Fairy Knight; some appear beneath special trees, like the Queen of Fairy before Thomas the Rhymer; others pierce their victim's hearts with darts, like the Elfking in King Orefo.

Or these stories use the fairies as boogie-men in cautionary tales for children. One example is the Kelpie that takes the form of a horse and tricks children into riding it, whereupon it jumps into the nearest pool or river and drowns them.

The old stories present the folk of Faerie as strange to or unmoved by human morality or desires. They are elemental and tricky like thunder and lightning, or a rip-tide in the ocean.

Then there are the fairies of the Mabinogion, the Arthurian Romances, and the lays of Marie de France. In these, knights summon otherworldly lovers by blowing horns, ladling water out of fountains, or putting on rings. Typically these fairy women aid the knight in a quest or redress some wrong done by a mortal court. Or else the knights camp out in an old haunted castle and risk being eaten (or worse) by an ugly, riddling spirit woman who usually turns into a beautiful bride by the time morning dawns and the knight has solved three riddles.

These medieval stories present fairies as foils to the mortal courts, and even the Courts of Heaven and Hell. The fairies are both friend and foe simultaneously -- dangerous as chaotic beings living outside the walls of civilization and beneficial as magical helpers. Treating with them requires navigating taboos and prohibitions alien to mortal custom. Almost always, the mortal breaks the rule -- they open the forbidden door, they speak the fairy lover's name, they taste the brew in the cauldron -- and bring ruin, wrath and lamentation down upon themselves.

Tolkien theorizes that after the age of Enlightenment, Faerie began to be depicted in the language of rationality and science. Elvin glamour became finesse. This led to a kind of "domesticated" fairy, the Flower Fairy.  He places the blame for teeny-tiny fairies dressed in flower petals with deelybopper antenna squarely on Drayton's Nymphidia.

Between Drayton, Spenser and Shakespeare, the fairies became agents of satire, allegory, and the author's plot needs (the fairies made him do it!).  Sometime around this point, elves and fairies begin to be relegated to the nursery and peasant wisdom. In 1889, this (according to Tolkien) prompted Andrew Lang to complain in the Lilac Fairy Book, "these fairies try to be funny and fail, and try to preach and succeed."

Another rationalization is to explain fairies as "savage" Northern European tribes of pygmies or Picts, long ago driven into the hinter-lands by the Romans or other civilized peoples.

From the flower fairies and anthropological fairies, it's a short jump to Puck of Pook's Hill, and Rudyard Kipling's "Puck's Song." In the song, Puck sings about the rise and fall of human empires and cities. We get the sense that the fairies are long-lived, and will continue to exist long after the last human ruin has crumbled. Kipling's Puck is diminutive and pointy eared, and he appears by accident after some children perform A Mid-Summer Night's Dream on Mid-Summer Night.


Now we get to Tolkien. The Hobbit. The Lord of the Rings. On Fairy Stories. In his essay, Tolkien says of the Elves: "Elves are not primarily concerned with us, nor we with them. Our fates are sundered..."

He says of Fairy Magic:
  •  "The part of magic [faeries] wield is power to play on the desires of [man's] body and heart."
  •  Fairy magic satisfies the desire to survey space and time and commune with other living things.
  • Fairy magic enables the realization of imagined wonder.
  • The magic of faerie re-enchants the familiar with its wonder-ful connection to the natural, as opposed to mortal magic which is concerned with willing power over nature.
He says of Fairy Stories:
  • There's a distinction between myth and history. Historical people and places become attached to mythic ones. 
  • Fairy stories are mythic tales.
  • Fairy-tales confound Comparative Folk-lore's list of correspondences and story element concordances.
  • Fairy stories are mystical toward the supernatural, magical toward nature, and the beings of Faerie regard mortals with pity and scorn.
  • Fairy stories contain prohibitions.

And of Faerie in general: Faerie cannot be caught within a net of words.

In Tolkien's works, Elves are so connected with Nature that they appear "supernatural." Their immortality sunders them from humankind, who is given the gift of death. This makes the Elves weary preservers of nature. Tolkien's Elves are also caught up in Tolkien's theme of the One Ring of Power, which is "Absolute power corrupts absolutely"; therefore, Tolkien's Elves have the unenviable choice of watching the nature and world they love and are intimately connected with fade away, or becoming corrupted by power that could preserve it.

Tolkien set the mold for the fantasy genre.


Since Tolkien, there have been a few other approaches to Elves and Faerie.

Marion Zimmer Bradley's Fairies in The Mists of Avalon (1982) are beings that inhabit a kind of parallel world. Faerie, such as it is, is portrayed as an other-worldly haven for an enclave practicing the old ways of Goddess Religion. It is a mist-filled place removed from the advances of Christianity and male-centric civilizations. The Fairies who do appear seem part-and-parcel of a magical, parallel-realm accessible only to those with The Sight. This realm, or possibly The Sight used to see it, is malleable to observers' expectations or state.

More modern Faerie seems to have pushed the immortality, removal, and indifference so far that it suffers from a kind of stasis or arrested development.
Prince Shadowbow (1985), by Sherri S Tepper, shows a Faerie that is fragile and must seek renewal through the more vital mortal world.

In War for the Oaks (1987), by Emma Bull, the folk of Faerie seem drawn to human music and movies to such an extent that the mortal protagonist asks the Queen of the Unseelie Court if there isn't anything she hasn't stolen from a movie. They seem to not understand love and death.

Patricia C. Wrede's Snow White and Rose Red (1989) presents a renaissance England fairy court, with magical court intrigues. One of the story's arcs concerns the nature of the connection between the Mortal and Faerie realms. "Mortal lands are our stability," says Wrede's Fairy Queen, "Without them we would fade to mist and shadows."

Ellen Kushner, in Thomas the Rhymer, (1990) has the Queen of Fairy tell Thomas that Elves are drawn to Humans because they burn bright, with a kind of fire which sustains them. Later Thomas opines that Fairies are bad liars because living in Faerie has blunted their ability to invent. In one of her last appearances, the Queen reports that she cannot change (and possibly cannot love because that would require change).

These previous four stories share Terri Windling as an editor. All though they they are long-lived or immortal, partake of magic, and have a separate fate from humanity, "Windling Elves" do not appear to have the Tolkien Elves' supernatural connection to the natural world -- their magic stems from their removal from the natural world; their other-worldliness is rooted in by their inability to understand moral emotion.

I'm almost forgetting Charles de Lint -- his Elves of European descent are close to Tolkien's; his expansion on them is to have them interact with Native American nature spirits.

And I've almost forgotten Brian Froud's Fairies. I want to be flippant and call them Muppet Fairies because of Froud's influence on the movies The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth. I admit my own ambiguity of feeling toward Froud's Fairies. On one hand, I love Labyrinth for the stunning visuals, artistry, and costuming. But I used to have a friend whom I used to share the tag-line "Love me, fear me, do what I say, and I will be your slave forever" as a joke. I feel the same way about Dark Crystal, only I loved the intricate freaky magic -- even if it was hard to find just one joke in the overwrought melodrama. If I were pressed, I'd say that Froud's art in general is in touch with Faerie as wonder; Labyrinth is in touch with fairy as trickster; and Dark Crystal is in touch with a "wholistic" politics and aesthetic.

Oh yeah, and then there are the D&D Elves.  And Hobbits.   Um... I think these count as humans with pointy ears.  With the copyright filed off.


To summarize, Faerie illuminates our relationships with and attitudes toward nature, civilization, modes of thought, and the human condition.  The Realm of Faerie has ranged from the Elemental, to the Outlandish, to the Preserving Sanctuary.   Faerie magic shows us how we love, what we fear, and how we die.

When I write about Faerie, I want to partake of the Tolkien essence of it.  I want my Elves to shine a different light (and shadow) on the truth.  I want them to reveal the wonder of the connected world.  And I want the reader to risk peril in the hope of transformation.  
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