Tough Travelling: Fairies
Welcome intrepid adventurers to Tough Travelling with the Tough Guide to Fantasyland!
That’s right, we’ve dusted it down and brought back this feature (created by Nathan of Fantasy Review Barn, revived by our friends over on Fantasy Faction, then dragged kicking and screaming to the Hive).
It is a monthly feature in which we rack our brains for popular (and not so popular) examples of fantasy tropes.
Tough Travelling is inspired by the informative and hilarious Tough Guide to Fantasyland by Diana Wynne Jones. Fellow bloggers are absolutely welcome to join in – just make your own list, publish it on your site, and then comment with the link on this article!
This month, we’re recalling our favourite FAIRES (and/or SPRITES, PIXIES etc) in Fantasy.
DWJ covered gnomes, goblins, elves, orcs, dwarves, elementals… but not fairies (or pixies or sprites etc). So… Interpret this as you will!
A big thank you to Nils, Jonathan, Beth, for their recommendations…
The Keepers trilogy by David Dalglish has the most wholesome fairy I’ve come across.
Tesmarie is a sword-wielding onyx fairy, who can also control time.
I am super excited to talk about fairies, they are my favourite. I am quite particular about fairy literature though. I simply cannot abide the twee, defanged, Bowdlerised fairies of Victorian children’s stories and everything that’s been influenced by them. Fairies are NOT cute and nice. They are ancient, eldritch beings with a thoroughly alien sense of morality to us humans. This can make them seem cruel, capricious and frightening, and one would do well to be wary. But fairies have their own rules, laws and guidelines that they will rigidly adhere to. They’re not amoral, they just have a thoroughly different set of principles to us, wildly divorced from our conceptions of good and evil.
A good place to start out is with the folklore. The essential fairy primer that everyone ought to read is Richard Kirk’s The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies. Completed in 1692 but not published until 1815 by Sir Walter Scott, over a hundred years after Kirk’s death, The Secret Commonwealth was the culmination of Kirk’s obsession with fairy folklore. Kirk’s treatise captures the weird primal nature of the folk beliefs where fairies come from, and burns with a glorious intensity throughout. It’s an indispensable reference guide to anyone writing about the Fair Folk. Much fairy folklore is also preserved in the Child Ballads, the traditional English and Scottish folk ballads collected by Francis James Child in 1860. The ballads go back all the way to the 1600s, and catalogue many key works of fairy lore, such as Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer. The ballads retain much of their dark magic, and for anyone who needs an introduction to them, I recommend listening to the versions performed by classic English folk rock bands of the 60s and 70s. In my opinion, Fairport Convention’s Liege & Lief (1969), Pentangle’s Basket of Light (1969) and Steeleye Span’s Please to See the King (1971) capture the sinister magic of these songs beautifully, and should by rights be considered key works of Fantasy literature. Fairies also feature prominently in art. Richard Dadd’s strange and sinister renderings capture their ambiguity beautifully, particularly in his masterpiece The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke (1864). More recently Brian and Wendy Froud have shown themselves to be the modern era’s preeminent capturers of fairy magic in visual media, to the extent that they were called upon to design the creatures for the film Labyrinth (1986).
Fairies have shaped how we write about the fantastic as far back as you care to trace Fantasy literature. George MacDonald’s Phantastes (1858) is acknowledged as an influence on C. S. Lewis and Tolkien, and sees the protagonist drawn into a dreamlike Fairyland. Arthur Machen’s short story ‘The White People’ (1904) remains a potent and terrifying exploration of the Fey, being told entirely through the medium of the diary of a young girl who does not understand the ancient and sinister powers she has come across. Lud-In-The-Mist by Hope Mirrlees (1926) is an early classic of Fantasy, and explores the life of the eponymous town, which sits on the border between Fairy and the human realm. Whip-smart, joyous and inventive, the book continues to delight almost a hundred years after its initial publication, counting such luminaries as Neil Gaiman among its devotees. Sylvia Townsend Warner’s The Kingdoms of Elfin (1977) is another key work, displaying beautifully the ice-cold heart of Fairy with a brutal disregard for any kind of sentimentalism.
Fantasy’s explorations of Fairy have led to many of the genre’s inarguable highlights. Diana Wynne Jones’ Fire & Hemlock (1984), a clever intermingling of the Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer stories and a meditation on the nature of storytelling itself, is perhaps this incredible author’s finest work. Ellen Kushner’s Thomas The Rhymer (1990) is a beautiful and lyrical reimagining of Thomas’s story, given real heart and warmth but never shying away from the inherent darkness of fairyland. Delia Sherman’s Through a Brazen Mirror (1988) and The Porcelain Dove (1993) are gorgeous, literate fantasies taking equal inspiration from fairy ballads, historical fiction and comedies of manners. Terri Windling’s The Wood Wife (1996) draws from both fairy mythology and Native American folk beliefs to create a wonderfully written and lyrical story. Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin (1991) reimagines the traditional ballad as a campus story, whilst Kat Howard’s Roses and Rot (2016) sets it in an artist’s retreat, and changes the focus from lovers to sisters. John Crowley’s Little, Big (1981) may be the most significant of all these novels, a family saga set in the magical house of Edgewood, whose arcane architecture acts as a gate to fairyland. Beautifully written, epic in scope, and infused with a very special magic, Little, Big is one of those books that forever changes its readers.
Fairies have managed to make their homes in places far away from their familiar hollow hills. In Michael Swanwick’s The Iron Dragon’s Daughter (1993), changeling mythology is given a delightful postmodern twist. Opening with Jane, a human child captured by the fairies to work in the factories where they construct the monstrous iron dragons, the novel is suffused with fairy mythology but in a shocking and original way that incorporates strip malls, drugs and motorcycle gangs. Paul J. McAuley’s Fairyland (1995) imagines posthuman, artificially constructed fairies making their home beneath Disneyland, Paris. Both novels are startlingly different takes on Fairy that manage at the same time to perfectly evoke the spirit of the original fairy mythology, even as they transplant them to new modern venues.
More recently, there has been a spate of absolutely wonderful fairy literature, books that are very much aware ot the above traditions but are doing something fresh and new.Frances Hardinge’s Cuckoo Song (2014) is a subversive and witty reimagining of the changeling story from a novel perspective. Elizabeth Knox’s The Absolute Book (2019) seems destined to deservedly become a modern Fantasy classic. It is a wonderfully written epic about memory, forgetfulness and fairy, spanning England, New Zealand and Fairyland. Jeannette Ng’s Under The Pendulum Sun (2017) is a breathtakingly original Fantasy novel about missionaries in Fairyland. Ng beautifully captures the gothic aesthetic whilst using it to say something new about cultural colonialism. Marian Womack’s The Golden Key (2020) is another wonderful creation, using the gothic and fairies to explore anxieties around climate change. Even as it harkens back to MacDonald’s Phantastes, it paves the way for new interpretations of Fairy to come. And Nina Allan’s superlative The Good Neighbours (2021), released earlier this month, has immediately snuck into my top favourite books about fairies, with its exploration of Richard Dadd’s paintings and the darker side of fairy mythology. It seems that both Fantasy authors and readers cannot get enough of the Fair Folk, and these books prove there’s plenty in the old fairy myths to inspire us for decades to come.
I’m very much of Jonathan’s opinion when it comes to fairies – I like them cunning and cruel, rather than the cutesy flower-fairies of Cicely Mary Barker or Enid Blyton.
Jonathan’s already mentioned Jeannette Ng’s Under the Pendulum Sun, whose fae were quite dark, almost menacing, and hoarded secrets.
Susanna Clarke wrote fae in quite a similar way, in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. Her Gentleman with thistledown hair was almost a Rumpelstiltskin character, trapping people in tricks and deals, playing with that notion of twisting language.
Which leads me to Stephanie Burgis’ Snowspelled, where her protagonist Cassandra has fallen into a deal with an elf-lord. Again, it’s this theme of a fae creature attempting to trap a human character through an impossible challenge where the wording of the terms plays an important part.
Peadar Ó Guilín’s The Call has the island of Ireland encircled by an isolating mist with its young people in thrall to a capricious faye. At some point in their teenage years, the children of ireland are summoned (called!) into the parallel world of the faye and hunted. If caught (and they usually are) they are sent back dead and/or deformed by some merging of human and beast bodies. Besides the inherent malevolence, the plot relies on the Fae’s honour in keeping to their word, once it is given – though always keen to subvert the spirit of any agreement by sticking to the letter of it. Worthy creatures for Jonathan’s Faye bestiary.
There’s also Graham Austin King’s Faye: The Wildhunt where the deadly faeries breach into the human world to pursue their hunt. You could also mention Rothfuss’s The Wise Man’s Fear, where Kvothe has a brief sojourn in the world of the Fae – though it’s a bit of a male gazey teenage fantasy of being inducted (and trained) in the sexual arts by Felurian.
Jo Zebedee’s The Waters and the Wild, is a short little novel set in the Glens of Antrim in Northern Ireland, where a young woman is haunted by a childhood association with faeries. While, with its contemporary setting Zebedee keeps the reader guessing whether it is depicting mental illness or fantasy, it very much explores the changeling notion at the heart of so many faerie stories.
As a final mention – Terry Pratchett’s Lords and Ladies, is another tale that defies both the Tolkienesque noble elf trope and the victorian/edwardian trope of Tinkerbell like creatures at the bottom of the garden. Again, Pratchett’s elves are dangerous and contemptuous of the shorter lived human mortals. It’s an interesting idea, that – while power is known to corrupt – perhaps immortality would be an even more corrosive influence on standards of morality and empathy.
The fae and their dangerous, knife-edge etiquette lend themselves beautifully to fantasies of manners, so in addition to seconding Beth’s mention of Stephanie Burgis’s Harwood Spellbook series, I’m going to recommend two more fabulous indie historical fantasies that include fairies.
Half a Soul by Olivia Atwater, which is a Regency tale about a debutante cursed by a fairy to have only half of her own soul, and The Lord of Stariel by AJ Lancaster, which sees a young woman navigate her family responsibilities after inheriting a magical estate with the help of her (rather attractive) fae butler.
Fantasy of manners fairies aren’t fluffy Tinkerbells, but they also don’t tend to be completely alien beings. Think of them as the elite of the elite: beautiful, fashionable, and powerful – and their put-downs are as deadly as their magic.
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