Although I have discussed previously the evidence that fairies can be murdered, the general view of fairy-kind is that they’re immortal. Certainly, literary representations describe faery characters in these terms- and it’s reasonable to assume that authors mostly just reflected the prevailing beliefs of their time.
The situation is well illustrated in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. The dispute between Titania and Oberon that’s central to the plot arises over an orphaned human child. Titania tells us that his mother “being mortal, of that boy did die” and that, “for her sake, I do rear up her boy.” Oberon quarrels with her over possession of the child and the land is blighted “The human mortals want their winter here” the queen says (II, 1). Later, Peaseblossom addresses Titania’s new lover, Bottom, with a cry of “Hail mortal!” (III, 1) It’s very evident from all three lines that the faeries see a stark distinction between their state and ours. The boy’s mother died in childbirth; although they may need to assistance of human midwifes, this could never happen to a fairy woman. Oberon simply confirms this difference when he declares to Puck “we are spirits of another sort” (III, 2).
The medieval poem, Thomas of Erceldoune, expresses the distinction between the faery state and ours in one simple phrase. Thomas meets the fairy queen and wants to have sex with her; she knows this will impair her unearthly beauty and exclaims to him:
“Man of molde, thou will be merre (mar)”
Thomas is a mortal being of Middle Earth and will inevitably return to the dust from which he came. This sharp contrast in our natures is brought out in the stories of those humans taken for many years into Faery and who, upon finally returning home, crumble into dust as soon as they touch another mortal or consume earthly food. In his account of Welsh folklore from 1896, it is fascinating to read that Elias Owen was told that, in just the same way, the tylwyth teg call us humans ‘dead men’ or ‘men of earth’ (Welsh Folklore, p.11). Humans are also sometimes called ‘children of Eve,’ indicative, at the very least, of our different lines of descent.
There is, also, a little evidence that fairies seek to make their human captives immortal like themselves. In Fletcher’s The Faithful Shepherdess we are told how the elves dance at night beside a well:
“dipping often times
Their stolen children, so to make them free
From dying flesh and dull mortality.” (Act I, scene 2)
How do we square this conviction of faery deathlessness with the evidence of faeries being killed quite easily by men? One explanation is, simply, that the faeries are mortal but that their life spans are very much longer than ours- so extended, in fact, that they are for all intents and purposes immortal. This was certainly the view that the Reverend Robert Kirk took in The Secret Commonwealth.
The other explanation is one that Tolkien endorsed. As is very clear from Lord of the Rings, disease and age cannot kill an elf, but they can die in battle- and therefore can be murdered. This qualified state may well seem a lot less desirable than any idea of perpetual youth and health. We find a depiction of it in another literary treatment of supernatural immortality- in Ariosto’s epic poem Orlando Furioso. The ‘sorceress’ Manto explains how:
“We are so born that all ills we sustain,
Save only death; but you must realise
Our Immortality is tinged with pain
As sharp as death and all that it implies.” (Book 43, stanza 98)
We may set against this the statement by Cornish author Enys Tregarthen that the pobel vean (the little people) showed their age by getting younger and fairer- or, at least, the fairy royalty did (The Pisky Purse, 1905).
Summary & Further Reading
In conclusion, we humans, with our mayfly lives, just can’t be sure as to the truth about fairy mortality. We read of fairy funerals witnessed by humans from time to time; perhaps these are best interpreted as ceremonies for those who have finally reached the end of their very long lives or for those who have been the unfortunate victims of assassination and war.
For more discussion of fairy life and mortality, see my recently published Faery.