Monday, December 4, 2017


Faeries were once called the Good Neighbors, the Hidden Folk, the Kindly Ones, the Strangers,the Gentry.
   Fascination with these liminal beings who take the shapes of our fears, our desires, and our whims resurfaces on occasion. The glamour and enchantment of faerie has been alluded to in fashion by designers such as Alexander McQueen and Dolce and Gabbana; in cosmetic brands ELF and Pixi. Faery wedding dresses are available. Faeries are a popular theme for children's parties and toys. Faerie has gone commercial with the artists Alan Lee, Jasmine Becket Griffith, Amy Brown, and the Frouds, who have created an entire faery universe all their own.
   The original faeries were not so tame. They were a terrifying race who mingled with the dead, strange and dangerous demons featured in ballads and folk tales such as 'Tam Lin,' 'Isabella and the Elfin Knight,' and 'Long Lankin.' In Celtic and Scandinavian mythology, they were the Tuatha de Danaan and the Alfar, people close to gods. Before electricity, they were considered creatures of the night, of dusk and dawn, beings to be feared--a common Irish cant against the faeries used to be 'May their backs be towards us, their faces turned away from us, and may God save us from harm.'
   The faeries first revival occurred during the Elizabethan era, with Edmund Spenser's poem, 'The Faerie Queene,' a lengthy satire inspired by Queen Elizabeth and her court. And references to the faery folk are scattered throughout William Shakespeare's plays. The faeries are represented by the ethereal Ariel and the bestial Caliban in The Tempest, and, not only are they given center stage in A Midsummer Night's Dream, but emotions to rival those of the mortals who fascinate them.
The rendering of faeries as dangerous and seductive became the model in Victorian art and poetry. At the time, poetry was experiencing a Romantic period. 'La Belle Dame Sans Merci' by John Keats and Christina Rossetti's 'Goblin Market' became popular. Pre-Raphaelite artists such as John William Waterhouse depicted the faeries as beautiful women who haunted watery places and dusky woods. In John Duncan's works, they were the elegant Tuatha de Danaan. Edmund Dulac and Arthur Rackham illustrated the faeries as either luminous ladies or grotesque creatures. Yet, at the same time, faeries also became tiny winged elements of nature, harmless and playful, a metamorphosis that influenced the famous fake Cottingley photographs that so bewitched Artur Conan Doyle.
   The early 1900s in Ireland produced the Celtic Renaissance led by the poet William Butler Yeats. While faeries appeared in poems and collections of folk tales, they were once again sinister, borderline entities with mysterious agendas, not anything one would want to encounter on the road home. Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland (1920) by Yeats's friend Lady Gregory is a fascinating collection of such faery encounters.
   The faeries re-emerged during the Sixties, appropriately during the Flower Power/Hippie era, as the Elves in J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. Resembling the Scandinavian Alfar and the divine Tuatha de Danaan of Celtic lore, these Elves, for all their strangeness, battled, loved, and grieved. And, in the end, unlike Faerie, they departed the mortal world forever.
   Yet another unlikely faerie Renaissance took place during the decade of New Wave and Preppy. Urban faeries were born in the rapidly expanding fantasy fiction genre of the 80s, most prominently in Charles de Lint's Newford series, where Celtic and Native American faeries vied for the attention of humans. Emma Bull's War for the Oaks and Terri Windling's Bordertown series introduced the punk elf. These faeries were inspired by the Gentry of Celtic folklore, the more civilized faery folk, who traveled the country in coaches while wearing fancy clothes. Faeries sloughed their shadows to become modern artists, musicians, motorcycle gangs, and people on the fringe. Faery love in these stories was a little less perilous than it had been in Victorian poems. Urban faeries were Mad Hatters and Cheshire Cats, tricksters with shady motivations. They were White Rabbits who led the protagonists into other worlds, and Red Queens who reflected the heroine's dark side.

   Faeries have infiltrated non-fantasy literature as well, becoming symbols of mortal fears: death, the shadow lover, the unknown, nature. A faery shapeshifter symbolizes the awakening sexuality of the protagonist in Graham Joyce's The Tooth Fairy. And, are they a cult, or, as Shakespeare describes, 'a team of little atomies' representing nature, in Joyce's Some Kind of Fairy Tale? The remnants of faerie live as a mysterious family in John Crowley's magnificent Little Big. In Sylvia Townsend Warner's dark satire Lolly Willowes, the faeries are synonymous with witches and devil worship, and haunt a spinster until she joins them. The Horned Herne the hunter might be a malevolent, murderous force in Tana French's thriller In the Woods.
   Urban faeries are a perfect example of the old world adapting to the new. With the surge in YA literature, the faerie folk have been reborn again as demon lovers, monsters, the ultimate Mean Girl. Because they are border creatures, they're also rule breakers, and what teen doesn't love a character who shatters the rules and has no respect for an authority such as reality? The faery folk are danger, the thrill of the unknown. As Jung writes of fairy tales: They teach us to 'turn directly toward the approaching darkness without prejudice and totally naively, and try to find out what its secret aim is and what it wants from you.' Which is a perfect summary of faery encounters in YA or anywhere else.

   Aside from that tiny granddame Tinker Bell, faeries have not fared so well onscreen,where goblins and other grotesques have been more prevalent. Labyrinth, Legend, and Guillero del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth have been the most successful in portraying the land of Faerie, combining all its wonders and terrors. With the exception of the Elves of The Lord of the Rings movies and Victor Jory's darkly luminous and eerie Oberon in the 1935 film A Midsummer Night's Dream, the faery folk themselves have been more elusive in a medium where fantasy must translate so literally to solid form. It is this elusiveness, this refusal to bond to any shape, which has intrigued artists and writers for centuries. The faeries are indeed ageless--and, by adapting to each era, have kept themselves forever alive in our imaginations.
   "For spirits when they please,
   Can either sex assume, or both, so soft
   And uncompounded in their essence pure,
   Not ty'd or manacled with joint or limb,
   Nor founded on the brittle strength of bones,
   Like cumbrous flesh; but, in what shape they choose,
   Dilated or condensed, bright or obscure,
   Can execute their aery purposes,
   and works of love or enmity fulfill."
                                    John Milton