“Be careful how ye speake here o’ the Wee Folk/ Or they will play such pranks on thee and thine/ Nae doubt, they dae a lot of good whiles/ But if provoked, they can be maist unkind.” (Henry Terrell, The wee folk of Menteith, p.46)
Some months ago I posted about my personal views of the nature and conduct of fairy-kind. I’d like to say a little more about my view of their general character and interaction with human kind, as I think it will inform an understanding of my own approach to the subject in these postings.
All things nice?
I’ve written in the past about certain modern, cute manifestations of fairy kind: Santa’s elves for example and the Tooth Fairy. As those of you who read these comments will no doubt have detected, I have little time for such sugary figures. I have an affection for the flower fairy art of Cicely Mary Barker and Margaret Tarrant, and even (sometimes) the plump cuddly creations of Mabel Lucy Atwell, but my own conception of their identity and activities is very different.
The genre of imagery shown below is part of our problem with fairies: because of Shakespeare and his contemporaries and successors, we have come to see them as cuddly and sweet and ideally suited to little girls. This is a gross underestimation and misconception. Perhaps Graham Ovenden’s painting at the head of this post is most appropriate: there’s beauty, but there’s something beneath, in that distracted self-absorbed look.
A darker view?
My view of Faery is rather darker and I’d summarise their main personality traits as follows. I’ll use some characters from my own books to illustrate these convictions, or preconceptions (or prejudices!) of mine:
- the fairies are a serious and scary people. I don’t conceive of them as small, either physically or in their activities. This will be apparent from my postings on this site and from all my fictional creations, but most strongly, perhaps, in the person of Maeve in Albion awake! I’d hesitate to antagonise or patronise her: I may have imagined her as smaller of stature, but there’s no doubting her formidable determination;
- they can’t be taken for granted and must be treated with all due respect and caution. Their good will can’t be bought;
- their resemblance to us should not be mistaken for affinity. They may look like us physically, but they are unlike us and any resemblance should not put us off our guard;
- they are strong and independent. They have their own agenda and their own rules by which they live. We shouldn’t presume to know their plans or to have much hope of changing them;
- they are reserved and won’t reveal themselves readily;
- they are content to live separately from us- indeed, they would prefer to do so- but sometimes necessity obliges them to make contact. We should not imagine that they want to ‘help’ us or that they ‘love’ humankind. To my mind that sort of attitude tends towards complacency and overconfidence. In Albion awake!, for example, main character John Bullen is permitted to call upon Maeve’s assistance in times of great need, but no more. That doesn’t inhibit her in appearing in his flat whenever she has need to make use of him, though; and that’s the core of the human/fairy interaction, to my mind. They make use of us and they may grant us the occasional favour, but there is an notable imbalance of power. In my novel The elder queen the fairies (‘the sky children’) show kindness to Darren Carter, but I’d probably conceive that as pity for the shambling wreck that he makes of his life towards the midpoint of the book- he’s drug addicted, divorced and indebted, homeless and jobless. He’s an object of their charity; there’s a good deal of condescension but little of the equality of friends.
Key to the fairy character is their mutability. How a particular individual human may be treated seems often to be a matter of whim; a fay’s mood is seldom predictable. (I’d argue that this apparent lack of consistency may be more to do with our ignorance of their habits and thinking than any waywardness on their part). Possible interactions with humans therefore cover a complete spectrum from good to bad. The fairy may be:
- evasive and secretive- or at the very least indifferent. Whether this arises from fear of humankind, or contempt for mortals, is debatable;
- generous and helpful. Certain favourites may, inexplicably, be adopted and given regular gifts of money or valuable skills or rewards (such as a never ending supply of flour or beer);
- even-handed and scrupulously fair. Sometimes faes will ask to borrow some household item or provision; they will always return it and, if a food stuff has been loaned, they will insist upon a full and equivalent restitution, and occasionally more than that;
- cruel and spiteful. A human may deserve their bad treatment, possibly because of some conceived slight to or neglect of the fairies; alternatively, there may be little explanation for the maltreatment dished out- other than it amuses the faeries.
The last category of interaction is naturally the most concerning, as it can be unheralded and undeserved torment- sometimes culminating in death. If I’m being cautious in my advice on approaches to fairies, I would always advise that you proceed on the assumption that the response you will get may be a rebuff or worse. If I was asked to summarise the most negative aspects of faery character, I would say that they were exploitative. Humankind are very often viewed as a resource, something to be used. They may take our foodstuffs, they may make use of our possessions or occupy our homes. Parasitic might be an even harsher adjective. Fairy-kind can bake, churn, spin, forge metals and all the rest; but why labour when people have done the work already? In this frame of mind, we can interpret changeling children as cuckoos: why look after the weak and infirm when you can take a healthy infant and leave the really hard care to a human?
I expand upon many of these traits in my other postings and in my 2017 book British fairies. My general advice, though, would always be to approach our Good Neighbours with great caution: if they are friendly and bountiful, count your blessings and enjoy your good luck (keeping it strictly secret). If they do not seem approachable, accept it and keep a respectful distance. Don’t pester, don’t expect, don’t assume. Don’t mix up smaller size and beautiful looks with cuteness and harmlessness; as I titled a previous post- not all nymphs are nice.
My forthcoming book, Faery, from Llewellyn Worldwide, will delve even further into the complex nature of the fae personality.