By the time I was two years old, I weighed thirteen pounds and was too weak to walk or even sit up for very long. My parents were troubled folk who finally took me to the hospital where I was diagnosed with celiac disease, a now well-known chronic condition. Fortunately, one of the attending doctors had a cousin recently diagnosed with the same problem and he recognized the symptoms where others had not. I imagine that if I’d been born a hundred or so years earlier, my parents—of mainly Celtic and Germanic descent and sickened by alcoholism (him) and intermittent psychosis (her)—might have concluded that I was not the child originally born to them, that I was from the realm of Faerie.
Although [Bridget Cleary’s] was the most flamboyant case of changeling-murder in the Victorian press, sadly it was not the only account of brutal mistreatment of those deemed to be fairies. Usually the poor victims were children, born with physical deformities or struck by sudden wasting illnesses. It wasn’t until the 20th century that reports of fairy abductions began to dwindle…
From “Fairies in Legend, Lore, and Literature” by Terri Windling
Faerie is a dangerous state, a country ruled by capricious characters, amoral beings who care nothing for us and are ill-equipped to fathom the stormy seas of human emotions. That being said, every so often they condescend.
Windling states that fairies went out of fashion again—after reaching peak popularity during the reign of Victoria—in the first half of the twentieth century, a span of time that saw two world wars and a world-wide depression that partially collapsed the economic dreams of the burgeoning middle class. But when J.R.R. Tolkien’s LotR trilogy hit, elves and dwarves and hobbits and their fantastical realm returned for good. The twenty-first century has also witnessed the rise in popularity of Studio Ghibli and the enchanting storytelling of creators Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata who have brought to cinematic life many elements of Japanese Faerie: fish-girl Ponyo (Ponyo), forest spirit Totoro (My Neighbor Totoro), No-Face the mirror demon (Spirited Away), river dragon Mizuchi (Spirited Away), and many more.
Faerie has always been a world-wide phenomenon. In her article, Windling lists no less than fifty-eight of its denizens, including Manitou (Algonquin), Hotots (Armenia), Peri (Persia), Oakmen (British Isles), Gandharvas (India), Aziza (west Africa), Shinsen (China), Rusali (Romania), and Bela (Indonesia). She states that her list is by no means complete.
It’s often remarked that fairies rarely appear in fairy tales, despite the moniker. If by fairy we mean a tiny winged being, fleet of mind and body, then yes, they are few and far between. But if, instead, we refer to beings whose name is derived from the the Latin fata (“the fates”), we see that fairy tales are rife with them. Perhaps the most familiar to those of us who grew up with western literature: the fairy with turquoise hair in Carlo Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio; Cinderella’s fairy godmother; the woman at the well in “Diamonds and Toads”; Thumbelina in the story of the same name by Hans Christian Andersen; Pan in The Wind in the Willows; the good fairies and the bad fairy in “Sleeping Beauty”; and Tinkerbell in Peter Pan.
Less familiar, but just as thrilling, two little-known tales featuring fairies:
From the Chinese Fairy Book (Wilhelm and Martens), “The Flower-Elves” tells the story of a scholar who, world-weary and seeking “hidden wisdom,” takes refuge in a country house surrounded by flowers and bamboo. A neighbor introduces herself.
She made a deep courtesy (sic), greeted him and said: “I am your neighbor. We are a company of young maids who are on our way to visit the eighteen aunts. We should like to rest in this court for awhile, and therefore ask your permission to do so.”
The scholar is taken by these women, to the point of being bewitched.
They were charming, with delicate features, and slender, graceful figures. When they moved their sleeves, a delightful fragrance was exhaled. There is no fragrance known to the human world which could be compared with it.
After being joined by the aunts, the scholar dines with the ladies and watches them sing and dance. He is “so overpowered with delight that he no longer knew whether he were in heaven or on earth.” The young ladies are the flowers and the aunts are the winds that threaten their existence, but also hasten their development when they are being gentle and thoughtful. The scholar comes to the aid of the flower-elves by controlling the winds. The flowers are content and he grows in wisdom until he becomes a wise old sage.
In Forty-Four Turkish Fairy Tales by Ignácz Kúnos, “The Padishah of the Thirty Peris” is the story of a princess who one day encounters a dove who steals her ring and, by some deep instinctual recognition, falls so in love with the bird that it breaks her heart. The bird returns twice more, stealing her things, and even more of her heart.
The padishah tries to trick his daughter into revealing the source of her pain. He provides a healing bath for all the people who, before partaking, must reveal the reason for their troubles. The padishah believes his daughter will thus declare herself. As so often happens, the padishah unleashes a series of events that will bring salvation to his daughter and to the bird, who is really a prince enchanted by thirty peris who keep him captive as padishah of a separate, parallel realm. Two lands are united when the princess and the dove/man finally wed.
I’ll give the final words to the master himself:
Faerie contains many things besides elves and fays, and besides dwarfs, witches, trolls, giants, or dragons: it holds the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky; and the earth, and all things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted.
From “On Fairy Stories” by J.R.R. Tolkien
All images are in the public domain.