We craft and tell stories because we’ve stood on the uncertain edge between the waking world and our imagination, between enchantment and fear. And we remember other stories that help us build our own stories, scraps of lumber and fragments of narrative we gather together to make stories for ourselves.

On Fairy Tales, Old and New

Begin at the beginning was the Mad Hatter’s advice. And willingly or not, fairy tales begin with fairies. Sort of. Not really. But fairy tales, at the very least, began in folktales, and otherness and strangeness form the boundaries of story that hapless protagonists cross–or not. It all depends on the story.

We begin with fairies, then, with guidance from our folklore editor: Katherine Langrish, the critically acclaimed author of Dark Angelspoints us down the troublesome road that leads to the centre–or is it the border?–of the wonder tale.

Modern faeries. Urban faeries. They have attitude and they are dangerous. Think streetwise fashion, romance with a distinct sado-masochistic streak, think doomed love. Think of weird little sprites doing unspeakable things to each other in corners, teenage heroines sacrificing themselves to save beautiful young men doomed to hell, or to release young summer kings from winter’s eternal grip. Think of titles like Tithe by Holly Black, Wicked Lovely by Melissa Marr, City of Bones by Cassandra Clare.

I love traditional fairytales, but by an oddity of the English language, fairies as such seldom figure in them. In the French tales of Charles Perrault and Madame D’Aulnoy there are few fairies, and still fewer in Grimm’s Märchen. Often there are no fairies in fairy tales at all. More frequently the stories turn upon the natural wickedness of men and women (as in The Juniper Tree), on witches (Hansel and Gretel, Jorinda and Jorindel), dwarfs (Strong Hans), mysterious old men or women met on the road (The Tinder Box), wise or magical animals (The Goose Girl, The White Snake) haunted houses (The Boy who Didn’t Know Fear), and personages such as Death, the Devil, Christ and St Peter.

It might have been clearer to call these stories folk-tales, but collections for children persist in calling them fairytales, perhaps because of the influence of Andrew Lang’s marvellous coloured fairy books. When you encounter a fairy in one of Lang’s tales, she is no diminutive flower-sprite, but an adult-sized, powerful woman – either good, with a Latinate name like Graciosa or Preciosa, or evil, with a name like Malefice or Perfidia. Her powers revolve around blessing or cursing cradles, and interfering in marriages. There are no male fairies at all.

Lang himself was a vigorous folklorist. The Grimm brothers were only a part of the great revival of interest in traditional tales that took place as an offshoot of the romantic movement and of nascent nationalism, right though the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. Selkies stirred in the Outer Hebrides. Undines drew themselves sinuously out of German rivers. The Neckan sang mournfully on Scandinavian cliffs. Baba Yaga flew through the Russian woods in her pestle and mortar to light down at her skull-bedecked garden gate, and the Sidhe went riding from Knocknarea and over the grave of Clooth-na-bare. (However you pronounce it, it sounds wonderful.) Some of these tales, especially the Celtic ones, filtered through to children, who might read about the Children of Dana, fated to spend their lives as wild swans. The Irish always knew the dangerous side of the fairies. William Allingham’s fairies in ‘Up the Aery Mountain, Down the Rushy Glen’ with its ‘Wee folk, good folk, Trooping all together, Green jacket, red cap, And white owl’s feather’ may fleetingly sound to modern ears like Disney’s dwarfs. But Allingham knew the connection of the fairies with loss and death:

They stole little Bridget
For seven years long,
And when she came down again
Her friends were all gone.

They took her lightly back,
Between the night and morrow,
They thought she was fast asleep,
But she was dead from sorrow.

Scottish J.M. Barrie’s ‘Peter Pan’ may include Tinkerbell, but his second take on a supernaturally extended youth is an eerie play about a girl stolen by the fairies, ‘Mary Rose’; and it doesn’t have a happy ending.

Despite all this, during the first half of the twentieth century, fairies in children’s literature were almost synonymous with an idealised childhood – especially girlhood. Think of the Cottesloe fairies and the Flower Fairies. They were fragile little creatures who lived under toadstools and wore bluebell hats; they died if you disbelieved in them; they painted the tips of daisies pink; above all they were helpful: not for nothing did Lady Baden-Powell name her girl scout movement ‘The Brownies’ (after an earlier name ‘The Rosebuds’ proved unpopular with girls). Brownies were thought of as helpful domestic spirits, and the traditional names for the Brownie ‘sixes’ – at least when I joined briefly in the 1960s – were Pixies, Elves, Leprechauns, Gnomes, Fairies and Sprites. Racism was rife – who wanted to be a gnome? – there were badges for feminine tasks such as knitting, sewing, and baking buns, and I left after a few weeks, partly because I did not believe I would ever learn to skip a hundred times backwards.

Then, in the 1960s Alan Garner burst upon the scene, raiding Celtic and Norse legends and throwing the booty together in the most electrifying way in his first two books The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath – in which two contemporary and quite pedestrian children (who might easily in other hands have seen fairies at the bottom of the garden) are hurled into a maelstrom of ancient magic, moon goddesses, shapeless terrors and hints of deeper legends, deeper worlds. Children’s literature was changed forever.

No fairy, of course, would get a look-in to any of Garner’s books; but it’s worth noting that no faeries get in either. The male supernaturals in Garner’s world are: wizards, a few rather stiff and chilly male elves, and dwarves. The females – Angharad Goldenhand and her obverse the Morrigan – are variants of the triple moon goddess or witch queen. But Garner released a rush of legend and folklore into children’s and young adult fiction. And fairies in folklore have always been connected with sex as well as death:

‘Harp and carp, Thomas,’ she said
‘Harp and carp along with me,
And if you dare to kiss my lips.
Sure of your body I will be.’

So Thomas the Rhymer kissed the Queen of Elphame under the Eildon Tree and rode away with her through the river of blood into elfland. Wild Edric lost his fairy wife and rides for ever on the Shropshire hills with his Hunt, searching for her. Fairy wives often symbolize the dead. (I modelled parts of my book ‘Dark Angels’ on some of these legends.) As for the sexy, beautiful, dangerous male faeries of the modern teen novels, with their nod to Sir James Fraser’s dying god the Corn King, what about the Irish ‘Love-Talker’, a beautiful fairy youth who waylays young girls in the gloaming and makes them so love-sick for him that they pine away and die?

Fairies, faeries, elves, whatever you like to call them, symbolise the supernatural Other in all its manifestations: the threat of illness, bereavement and death as well as the lure of love and beauty. That’s surely why in the sixteenth century the ‘high’ fairies were rationalised into two ‘courts’: the ‘Seelie Court’ and the ‘Unseelie Court’, representing their benevolent and harmful aspects. Kings and Queens, love and death, beauty and cruelty, good and evil – the European faerie culture is rich and complex. No wonder so many modern fantasy writers want to plunder it.

But maybe it’s time to look further, at some of the less obviously glamorous tales? Detach ourselves for a minute from the ballads, and the heroic Celtic legends, and the influence of James Fraser, and take a look at some of the more humble tales, the ones which don’t involve beautiful queens? There are far more stories about peasants and tradesmen and farmers and beggars and pensioned-off soldiers than there are about queens. And if you think about it for a second, the world still holds plenty of peasants and tradesmen and farmers and beggars and pensioned off soldiers. Just as it always did.

Fairy tales are about so much more than ‘Cinderella meets Prince Charming,’ or even ‘Streetwise Janet saves doomed Summer King from ritual death’, which is the same story in reverse. Don’t get me wrong, I love that kind of story! I just don’t want us to miss all the other things that are going on.

Hansel and Gretel is, as Adele Geras succinctly puts it, ‘about hunger.’ About the choices people have to make when they are absolutely at starvation’s door. The Tinder Box is about a soldier who’s done his duty by his country only to be discarded and marginalized and left to tramp the roads. The Seven Little Kids is about a single, working mother who has to leave her children alone in the house, knowing they may be in danger. The Fisherman and his Wife is about greed (and a poisonous marriage). The Mouse, the Bird and The Sausage is a cautionary tale about the dangers of blind trust and naivety. There’s even a far-fetched yarn about organ transplants, called The Three Army Surgeons! And there are just-so stories and morality tales and semi-religious legends, like the one called ‘Our Lady’s Little Glass’ in which Our Lady helps a wagoner whose cart is stuck, in return for a glass of the wine which he is carrying. When he says, ‘Willingly, but I have no glass,’ she plucks a wayside flower, the bindweed, whose shape is like a glass, and drinks from that – and ever after, the white bindweed has had red stripes…

As Alison Lurie puts it in her book ‘Don’t Tell The Grownups’ (Bloomsbury, 1990):

As we had suspected, the fairy tales had been right all along. …The world was full of hostile, stupid giants and perilous castles and people who abandoned their children in the nearest forest. To succeed in this world you needed some special skill or patronage, plus remarkable luck; and it didn’t hurt to be very good looking. The other qualities that counted were wit, boldness, stubborn persistence and an eye to the main chance. Kindness to those in trouble was also advisable – you never knew who might be useful to you later on.

Comical, tragic, beautiful or cruel, these anonymous stories are amazingly diverse and amazingly hardy. They’ve been told and retold, loved and laughed at, by generation after generation, because they are of the people, by the people, for the people. The world of fairy tales is one in which the pain and deprivation and bad luck and hard work of ordinary folk can be alleviated by a chance meeting, by luck, by courtesy and courage and quick wits – and by the occasional miracle.

The world of fairy tales is not so very different from ours.

It is ours.

Reader Comments

  1. What a utterly wonderful summation of all that I love about fairy tales. May Unsettling Wonder prosper mightily. Off to spread the word on Twitter right now.

  2. So true, which is one of the reasons that I becane a collector. I love fairy tales as well as folklore, myths and legends. I tend to leave those with Kings and Queens behind, as I’m drawn more to those tales which revolve around animals or some part of nature. Good luck with this site!

  3. Unsettling Wonder already looks like it could be my ideal forum for discussion! I love folktales and legends, and I’m particularly keen on tracking down heroine tales. I also admit to plundering selkie stories, Scottish fairy tales and Celtic myths for characters and magic for my own novels. After this wonderful agenda-setting first post, I am now looking forward to Unsettling Wonder stimulating lots of fascinating discussion among those of us who love the old tales, and the new magic we can weave from them.

  4. Great introduction, although we’ve always called the children turned into swans the Children of Lir.
    At the library where I work we had a huge clear out and I nabbed a few old fairy/folk tales. They really are great. The latest one features quite a lot of “the good folk” and the mischief they cause.

    Great stuff 🙂

  5. Thanks and welcome, one and all. What I love about Kath’s post is how deftly she brings the traditional tales back into the present day, by pointing out that they’re still alive. The tradition has changed, sure, but it isn’t dead yet, and I don’t think it ever will be, really.

  6. Fence – you’re quite right, yet I’m sure I’ve come across the other name too – and why it sprang to mind instead of the other, I don’t know. Yes I do! It’s from the poem by Yeats, The Unappeasable Host, which starts,

    THE Danaan children laugh, in cradles of wrought gold,
    And clap their hands together, and half close their eyes,
    For they will ride the North when the ger-eagle flies…

    But of course, they are NOT the Children of Lir! Thankyou all for the comments and good wishes, and those of you who’d like to contribute, I hope we’ll see you and become Good Companions on the road ahead. ( Now there’s a tale I’d like to tell again…)

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