By “fairies,” I refer to the creatures who inhabit the unsettling tales of old legend, not those winged lawn ornaments of Victorian and modern art. I really mean “the fey folk,” “the people under the hill,” “the fair ones.” We need them, and I shall explain why.
The fey folk are dangerous. Disobey their instructions not to look over your shoulder, and your head might get stuck that way. Annoy them, and your cows may never give milk again. Go to one of their parties, and you might just dance until the flesh falls off your bones. They are not like humans: they do not feel love or pity. They are unearthly and amoral.
Yet they are also fascinating. Their powers are mysterious, their race appears immortal, and often they are more beautiful than any sight yet seen by human eyes.
The only reliable thing about the fey folk is that they are unpredictable. Sometimes they plague a farm with tricks and mischief, sometimes they exchange a human child for one of their own, sometimes they steal a man away to be husband to a fey, sometimes they give a woman rich rewards for having helped them. Cautious people avoid them. Sane people are always terribly polite to them. Unfortunate people are driven mad by them.
The folk play an important role in the stories that shape our imaginations. It is important to remember the lessons of the fey:
1. Always treat strangers with courtesy and caution, because you do not know who (or what) they might be.
2. There are mysteries in the world that make life deeper, more frightening, more beautiful, and more exciting than it would otherwise be.
3. There are realms into which humans ought not to delve, and desires which humans ought not to satisfy, lest we destroy ourselves.
The last point is something very much needed today. We live in a world where the concept of Eve’s apple and Pandora’s box is hard to truly understand, because it is fashionable now to think that any taboo can be thrown off and any barrier broken. We are accustomed to choice and freedom and scientific discovery. We are bold enough to think that we will be able to understand everything about the human brain, or outer space, or love, or engineering humans in petri dishes. We truly believe that everything in the world is ours for our taking (and we probably even believe that we can custom-order it while we take it).
But the world is not as small as we think. The answers are not as simple. Sometimes, trying to take everything, or to know everything, breaks the things we are examining. Sometimes it breaks us.
Stories of the fey folk teach respect. They remind us that the world is a wide and wonderful place, and that its very wideness makes it, like the ocean, a place where a careless person can drown. Yet they do not stifle initiative or curiosity. Those same folk tales are full of intrepid Ash Lads and of Goose Girls whose bravery leads to royal rewards. What the stories do is suggest that wise Ash Lads know their own human limitations and do not meddle arrogantly with immortal powers and immoral ambitions. Intelligent Goose Girls intuit that the universe has certain rules which ought to be followed. In sum, tales of the folk teach that humans should try to understand and recognize that there are limitations to our ability to achieve everything we want, and that following one’s own desires can lead to unexpected destruction and disaster. In our modern context this message might seem stifling, but it is actually far more breathtaking to belong to a wide and fierce world than to a small little tame one that fits beneath our thumbs.
G. K. Chesterton discusses the “Ethics of Elfland” in his book Orthodoxy. He points out that,
“….the true citizen of fairyland is obeying something that he does not understand at all. In the fairy tale an incomprehensible happiness rests upon an incomprehensible condition. A box is opened, and all evils fly out. A word is forgotten, and cities perish. A lamp is lit, and love flies away. A flower is plucked, and human lives are forfeited. An apple is eaten, and the hope of God is gone…..
“…. [Cinderella] had a glass slipper; and it cannot be a coincidence that glass is so common a substance in folk-lore. This princess lives in a glass castle, that princess on a glass hill; this one sees all things in a mirror; they may all live in glass houses if they will not throw stones. For this thin glitter of glass everywhere is the expression of the fact that the happiness is bright but brittle, like the substance most easily smashed by a housemaid or a cat. And this fairy-tale sentiment also sank into me and became my sentiment towards the whole world. I felt and feel that life itself is as bright as the diamond, but as brittle as the window-pane; and when the heavens were compared to the terrible crystal I can remember a shudder. I was afraid that God would drop the cosmos with a crash.”
The fey folk are often whittled down nowadays to tinker bells and warrior-elf-maidens, but some books do portray them well. Some authors realize that the fey are fascinating and attractive because play upon the things that humans desire (wealth, beauty, immortality, power to grant wishes). Some authors know that the fey are always dangerous because it is not good for humans to grasp for wealthy, beauty, immortality, and power.
Let me give you three examples.
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke
This book (a very long one indeed) is an alternative history in which old magic has returned to Napoleonic England in the persons of two very different, scholarly, English magicians. The story is told in nineteenth-century-style language and employs a vast number of footnotes referring to a body of scholarship that would surely have existed if scholars had studied magic. It is a compelling story but not a neat and tidy one (the ending did not entirely satisfy me, even though I understand why the author chose it). In the world of the book, the fey folk are ruled by a thistle-down-haired prince. If he were not amoral, he might be called evil. He is dangerous and interesting and wrong.
The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope
During Queen Mary’s rule of England, a young woman who serves the future Queen Elizabeth is banished to a country estate. There the people believe in the fey. Little as our heroine is inclined to accept their superstition, she soon finds herself in danger. In this young adult novel, the question of magic is ambiguous, and it is not clear whether the “folk” are essentially old pagans in hiding or actually magical beings. Yet the author does a lovely job of showing that a person who tries to seize happiness through magic may lose their chance to have any happiness at all.
Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge