The World of the Fae

Notes taken from the BristolCon 2016 panel ‘The F Word’. 

Whatever happened to fairytales? 

Today’s popular fairytales are very sanitised. Generic fairies roam the covers of children’s book. Disney gives everyone a happy ever after. In the UK, Enid Blyton has been responsible for numerous jolly little fairies, brownies and pixies with maybe a grumpy misunderstood dwarf to balance things out.

Don’t get me wrong, I grew up on Enid Blyton and I love Disney, but where fairytales are concerned, the original intent has often been hijacked. New fairytales are often fun and entertaining, but they have moved away from their folklore roots.

Many original fairytales and works derived from them have a distinctly creepy factor and often a bittersweet ending, or tragic consequences.

Looking back at the original Grimm’s or Hans Christian Anderson tales can often come as a shock if you only know the Disney ending. For example, in the original Little Mermaid, the mermaid doesn’t marry the Prince–she dies and spends years in an effective purgatory to gain a human soul.

Some books and movies do touch on the darker side of fairytales and folklore, of course.

Alan Garner’s books were favourites of mine as a child and deal with some dark aspects of Cheshire folklore. And the film Pan’s Labyrinth is is a good example of fairy folk who do not mean well. The fairies of folklore are tricksy sprites who play games and double-cross humans for fun, sometimes with real evil intent.

What is the traditional World of the Fae? 

When you think of Fairyland, you think of hidden forest glades. On a dark night, you might see dancing and light in the distance. If you eat the food of the Fae, you are doomed to stay in their land.

Fairyland and folklore are mixed together in many countries’ history. The mythical Lady of the Lake is an example of this. In the UK, Wales has a long history and heritage with the Fae–apparently the land of the Fae is off the southwest tip of Wales.

All down the south west coast these traditions persist, from the mythical giants of Bristol and Cornwall, to the legendary Tintagel Castle. King Arthur left a rich heritage of mixed folklore and magic, with legends about Glastonbury and the lost Isle of Avalon and his various exploits abounding.

Fairyland at this level seems to touch history. Fact and legend intertwine and certainly not in a happy ever after. And for years, these tales have inspired writers to create their own versions of fairyland.

How does Fairyland interact with the 
modern world?

Traditionally, one can only enter Fairyland by crossing a threshold. The threshold may not be visible at all times. Paths and gateways may only appear at midnight, or in the moonlight.

Metal, particularly iron, is one thing that the Fae cannot tolerate. This can make it more difficult to integrate the traditional Fae into something like contemporary urban fantasy–not impossible, but certainly more of a challenge and needs a unique take.

Humans who venture into Fairyland rarely come off unscathed. They may come home and no one recognises them. They may find many years have passed in their absence. The timeline of Fairyland is more flexible than that of our world.

How can we incorporate the Fae and Fairyland into our writing? 

If we wish to take a traditional approach to Fairyland, it can be difficult to incorporate into our writing, particularly if we go with a more modern setting.

The old-fashioned view of the Fae as dangerous, otherworldly beings is not as popular because it’s difficult for us to identify with the characters. The current trend in writing is to immerse the reader directly in the point of view of the characters to allow for empathy. This can be hard with a being that has non-human characteristics and values. But by humanising the Fae, do we devalue their origins?

We can struggle to find a happy medium when acknowledging tradition yet putting our own spin on it. It can be easy to fall into using stereotypical fantasy creatures, particularly if you use a ‘bridging character’: that one member of the race who wants something different can sometimes merely emphasise the non-originality of the rest of their race.

Anything goes in terms of interpreting fantasy creatures these days,  but the races you create still have to have a familiar feel to get the reader invested.

What’s next for Fairyland? 

The Fae do not seem to be a huge trend in fantasy at the moment. The trends that have been overdone in more recent years seem to be the vampire/werewolf type urban fantasies. So I think there is scope for reinventing Fairyland.

The only author who comes to mind with a prominent Land of the Fae is Patrick Rothfuss–and I’m not sure his interpretation did the Fae any favours!

And I’m sure Disney will also continue to reinvent the fairy tale in a way that is fun and entertaining, even if it doesn’t hugely respect the roots or origins of the stories.

Let me know what your favourite fantasy books involving Fairyland are!

4 Comments

  1. My sister actually wrote a novel involving the Fae some years back that I really enjoyed; no amount of pestering has yet gotten her to dust it off, though!

    In terms of recent reads… I just read The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black, which did involve Fae and was very, very good. Definitely a portrayal that harkens back to the old days, when the Fae weren’t tame and sweet.

    For kids, there’s the Spiderwick Chronicles, which I loved growing up. I’m sure there are others I’m forgetting now as well.

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