As I said in the prior post, if you’re here reading this, you probably already know that my Tufa novels are about a race of exiled fairy folk in the mountains of east Tennessee. The title of the sixth and final book in the series, The Fairies of Sadieville, explicitly references this connection. And although they’re entirely fictional, they draw on fairy folklore and address some of the fundamental questions about fairy belief.
Director Howard Hawks, speaking (in the book Hawks on Hawks) about one of his few flops, the 1955 movie Land of the Pharaohs, pinned its failure on a simple issue: “We didn’t know what a pharaoh did.” In his world view, people are defined by what they do, not who (or what) they are.
So, assuming fairies have an objective reality–that is, they exist independently of those who encounter them–it begs the question, what do they do?
What size are fairies?
C.S. Lewis points out that, before Gulliver’s Travels, the relative size of various beings was never a serious concern, or even portrayed with any type of consistency. Therefore, we can’t be sure how large or small the ancients considered the fairy folk to truly be.
As the Christian religion advanced, fairies were considered evil by default, but since many artists and poets wished to write about them, they made them first playful, then physically so small they were considered no threat, and then so innocent and insubstantial they appealed only to children.
What do fairies look like?
For the most part, fairies look like people. The Tuatha De Danaan are generally depicted as tall, red haired and blue eyed, much fairer than the dark people who lived in Ireland and Scotland.
Depictions of fairies with wings only appeared around the time of the Industrial Revolution. As stated above, fairies in general grew smaller, more child-like, and as nature spirits were relegated to gardens, where they took on the characteristics of insects (wings and attraction to flowers).
What do fairies do?
In folklore, fairies seldom seem to have an actual trade. Like the monied class, they spend most of their time doing frivolous things like gaming, dancing, playing music or simply frolicking.
They can be generous with their time and skills, helping humans with menial tasks. But there are elaborate strictures around this generosity. They are easily offended by what humans consider minor impoliteness, or even by politeness presented in the wrong way.
This folkloric requirement may be a result of two concepts colliding: the idea that ancient fairy folk were gods, or at least mighty warriors, banging up against the later Christian concept that they are satanic simply by being remnants of pre-Christian beliefs. The warriors become cranky sprites, their battle rage minimized and simplified into being sticklers for etiquette.
What do you call fairies?
Many folkloric creatures have survived into modern times: vampires, werewolves, angels, demons, etc. But few are as touchy as the fairy folk, to the point that even speaking about them is dangerous. To call them by their name is to invite their ire.
Among the many terms used for them:
The Grey Neighbors
The Fair Folk
The Shining Ones
The Kindly Ones
And my favorite,
The Other Crowd.
The implication from this is that they are simply looking for an excuse to bring down drama on unsuspecting heads. Is that, then, what fairies do?
In his final book, The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature, C.S. Lewis refers to fairy folk as the Longaevi, meaning “longlivers.” He placed them in their own classification, because they just didn’t fit anywhere else.
Modern Fairy Encounters
Fairy sightings have not diminished with the advent of modern civilization. Computers, the internet, and cell phones have neither proven nor disproven their existence. Just like Nessie, Bigfoot, and other possibly mythical beings, fairies are still being seen. The three books pictured with this post (Faery Tale, Seeing Fairies, and Meeting the Other Crowd) all deal with contemporary encounters. There are documentaries about modern encounters, such as The Fairy Faith.
If we accept that fairies are real, then they’re being seen because they’re there. But if they have that objective reality, why do we see the Victorian-style fairy, and not the ancient warrior gods of the Celts? What exactly are we seeing?
If they’re purely mental phenomena, what do they represent to us that makes our brains keep conjuring them? And why do we conjure them in this fairly specific, homogenous Victorian form?
C.S. Lewis sums it up nicely:
“As long as the fairies remained at all, they remained evasive.”