MIND MELD: Why is the World of Faerie so Popular in Fantasy?
[Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld? Let us know!]
Novels and stories about all things faerie have become extremely popular in the past few years, rather notably in young adult fiction. So we asked this week’s panelists…
Here’s what they said…
Faeries have always fascinated me. I love creepy tales and stories about things that go bump in the night, and I love the idea that there is this whole other world that exists right alongside ours, we just don’t see it. I think this is exactly why audiences are fascinated with the fey. They’re beautiful, seductive, mysterious, dangerous, and alluring, and we can’t help but be drawn to that.
For me, writing about the fey is like being turned loose in a fantasy playground. There are so many types of fey, so many myths and stories and legends. Nearly anything is possible when you venture into the faery world; not only do you have the denizens of Faery–goblins and piskies and kelpies and trolls–the very land can surprise you with how beautiful and dangerous it is. Trees are more than they appear. Flowers could very well be carnivorous. That bright red strawberry might turn you into a rabbit if you eat it, or put you to sleep for centuries. Nothing is safe, and anything can happen when you’re dealing with the fey. Creating the land of Faery, called The Nevernever in my books, was one of my favorite parts when writing The Iron Fey series.
My other favorite part was the cast of characters. From tiny brownies to deadly beautiful fey princes, to talking cats and faery queens, to bloodthirsty redcaps and brilliant faery tricksters, the world and legends of Faery has everything a fantasy lover could want. For authors and readers alike. They might be dangerous, they might be infuriating, seductive, devious and amoral, but when dealing with faeries, one thing is for certain. You might be eaten, seduced, made to dance forever or turned into a hedgehog for all time, but you will never be bored.
I’ve been fascinated by this phenomenon myself ever since its coming was predicted by my friend Steve Peek some fifteen years ago. Steve saw it coming on the basis of some perfectly conventional market research carried out for the U.S. toy industry, so people were clearly beginning to lean in that direction before it started to show up in books and other media. What sparked their interest is a more complicated question than it sounds. First off, there are two separate and distinct types of interest in fairies. One looks on fairies as sweet little winged creatures, inches tall, who flit among the bluebells sprinkling fairy dust. The other focuses on fairies in the Shakespearian mould, humanoid inhabitants of an alternative reality who are anything but sweet and can be downright dangerous at times.
Both types of fairy are attracting attention nowadays, I suspect for the same reason: we’re all growing thoroughly fed up with the myth of Victorian materialism and want a view of the universe that will give our lives greater extension and more meaning. I think we’re attracted to the dark side because sweetness and light is desperately dull. Nobody wants to read a story about a nice girl who behaves herself all day long, does good deeds and never puts a foot wrong.
What do I enjoy about writing on the world of faerie? Well, actually, I don’t really write about faeries at all. My Faerie Wars books owe almost nothing to traditional faerie lore or contemporary reports of faerie sightings. Rather they’re fantasies loosely based in a version of Elizabethan London that crawled into my head quite unexpectedly around the turn of the millennium. As against that, the first book was more or less dictated by a paranormal entity who brought me on a visit to two of the faerie kingdoms in Ireland. So perhaps there is more to the current interest than conventional socio-economic factors. Perhaps there really has been something stirring behind the Veil.
Humans have always been fascinated with the world of the fae, or whatever the local equivalent may be–from the fairies of the United Kingdom to the nature spirits of Greece to the household gods of Japan, and with thousands upon thousands of variants around the world, we’ve always been making up legends and telling ourselves stories about the things that lived just out of reach. There are strong arguments to be made for all ghost stories being faerie stories, given the number of types of fae that are also considered to be ‘unquiet dead’ and did I mention that this is what I went to college for? Yup. I was so fascinated by faerie that I went to school to study Folklore and Mythology, because that is what one does when one wants to tell fairy tales forever.
Faerie explains the unexplainable, from ‘where did my sister go’ all the way down to ‘why do garden hoses tie themselves in knots when you leave them in the shed overnight.’ Faerie has all the answers. And because it’s a set of answers based on magic, there are no absolute rules. Faerie strips the inhibitions.
My favorite part of writing about the fae is also the most difficult one–remembering that they’re not human, have never been human, don’t want to be human, and wouldn’t become human if you offered them the chance. They don’t think or move like we do. Writing about the fae interacting with humans is like writing a book from the point of view of a cat. They may do things we recognize as affectionate or needy, but their motivations aren’t ours. They want what they want for their own reasons.
The fae can be benevolent or cruel, capricious or steady, and they represent an endless range of possibilities. I wouldn’t trade that for anything. Especially not for fairy gold.
It seems like authors are constantly looking for a new “creature” to exploit, but I believe the popularity of fairies has to do with their elegance. They’re not as hairy as werewolves, not as short and stock as dwarves, not as ugly as orcs, not as fishy as mermaids, and not as clumsy as zombies. Like the other most-exploited creature, vampires, they can be male or female, powerful yet flawed, attractive and alluring. With paranormal romance, there is always the allure of falling for something that’s forbidden, that one shouldn’t love– and what is more compelling than a beautiful being that possesses powers that most humans only dream of?
I’ve discovered while writing in the world of faerie that there is a very devout group of people who are fans of everything faerie. I can not say I was one of them. I simply woke up one morning and thought, “What would a girl do if she found out her boyfriend was a fairy?” and went from there. During the research, it was certainly eye-opening, learning the lore. I think the most enjoyable part of writing faerie is being able to take that lore and mold it in a way that made my small story idea come to life.
All authors are constantly mining for material, especially tropes that resonate with the popular imagination. Digging into folklore is an obviously rich source. There must be some folkloric figures that haven’t been rediscovered and exploited yet, but I’ll bet there aren’t many! We’ve seen a glut of vampires, zombies, angels, wizards and witches, elves and dwarves and werewolves and gods and – where will it all end?
The Victorian image of fairies as tiny winged beings flitting among the flowers is a sentimental construct, at odds with the much more grim, dark origins of what I’d call faerie, as opposed to fairyland. They seem to be an amalgam of ideas about nature spirits, the dryads and nymphs of classical myth, and the concept of dead human souls dwelling in some mystical limbo or a pre-Christian after life. Or perhaps they were a memory of a real, older race supplanted by invaders. Faeries have power over the elements. They are beyond human morals, so upset them at your peril! The legend of entering the faerie realm and being held there for perhaps a day or a week, then waking up on the cold hillside to find that seven years have passed, is a common and deeply unsettling theme. There is always a warning not to eat the food, or you’ll never escape!
Before science came along, there was no obvious explanation for many phenomena. Yet an explanation was sought, so it must have seemed natural to imagine the cause emanating from an invisible world alongside ours. For example, if you gave birth to a malformed or sick baby, there was no logical reason – except that goblins had come along and swapped your real child for a goblin baby, a changeling. A chilling thought indeed.
There seems to be a lot of sex in the legends that was of course airbrushed out for children. Faeries are constantly abducting humans for sexual purposes – which perhaps says more about the human imagination than it does about the Fair Folk! They are exotic, enigmatic, seductive, dangerous and “other” – perhaps even more intriguing than (well-written) vampires. I think that’s their everlasting appeal to our imagination.
That said, I don’t view my “Aetherial” characters (in Grail of the Summer Stars, Elfland and Midsummer Night) as faeries as such. I’ve long been fascinated by the idea of creatures who look human but aren’t, and Aetherials are simply my own version of such a race. They have their own Otherworld called the Spiral, their own characteristics and mythology and ways of living. They don’t follow traditional faerie lore by any means. For that reason, I have tried to keep away from reading too much about faeries, or other novels about them – I wanted my Aetherials to be different, and very much their own selves.
However, there’s no denying that they have much in common with traditional faeries – their own magical realms, a propensity to cause mischief among humans, long life, beauty, shape-shifting abilities and an amorous, often amoral, approach to sex and love. Fragments of folk-tales and Norse myth creep into their adventures. Some are well-intentioned, others are…very much not. They first appeared as the Aelyr in my Jewelfire Trilogy (The Amber Citadel and sequels), rather like Tolkien’s elves, but with less noble motives! Faeries, elves, angels, demons? I don’t really know who the Aetherials are, but they are all individuals with their own stories to tell and new magical secrets to reveal. That’s why I love writing about them.
A few years ago, I read an essay in a critical journal that posited that we tend to gravitate to the dark when our society hits an economic decline or political instability. I’m not sure that’s entirely true, but I do think that there is something cathartic about safely slipping into darkness. Fiction lets us go places we wouldn’t necessarily enjoy—or places that we shouldn’t go but might enjoy a touch too much. It lets us visit, but also see that at the end all’s well.
I also think that there is an innate appeal in speculative fiction (including faery fic) because it lets us explore the liminal. That appeal is especially true for teen readers who are in a liminal period of life. They are not quite adult or child. They are asked to be responsible and independent, but they are legally still children. By the end of the teen years, they are expected to have a sense of what they want to do (be it college or career), yet are often still reliant upon the adults in their lives. Fiction about creatures who exist on a different border is a logical match.
Another possibility is the parallel experience of being the human surrounded by faeries. As a teen surrounded by adults or a human surrounded by faeries, it quickly becomes clear that They might look like Us, but they’re not. They follow rules that we don’t know, and thrive on misdirection and machinations. It’s a metaphor that works with any number of “us” and “them” groups.
Why do I enjoy it? I’m a liberal, feminist, pagan from a blue collar Irish Catholic family who put myself through college and grad school by a combination of scholarships and weird jobs. I love musical theatre and biker bars. Being a mother (which I am) was my number one goal in life, but I’m hardcore pro-choice. Liminal is where I live. Add that together with growing up believing in faeries and various things that go bump in the night, and I suspect writing spec fic, especially faeries, was somewhat inevitable.
- Woeful Economy. It’s well known that in grim times such as war and depression and recession, people turn to entertainment that will take them out of themselves. Losing yourself in a faerie world is a good way to get your head out of real world gloom.
- The Great Bandwaggon. Success breeds more success and in its wake, imitation and ‘homage’ and bandwaggon-hopping, thus creating a tsunami of things faerie from which people are able to choose. After years of dearth and wilderness, Harry Potter catapulted magic back into the world. Fantasy and Magic became the new black – which meant everyone wanted to jump aboard. It became ok to like this stuff again – and to publish it and make TV shows about it and movies about it. The rise of computer generated images allowed books such as Lord of the Rings to be realized on the big screen, and there followed an avalanche of similar movies and TV series. My point here being that its tricky to create a mass-movement of any kind unless people with the big bucks are prepared to invest in it and get it up there on the bookshelves, the TV screen and the Multiplex.
- Analogy. Myths, Legends, Fairy Stories, Fables, Sagas and Parables have long been used as subtle educational/instructional tools – and the new slew of stories about faerie are much in that tradition. As with Mr Spock or Data in Star Trek, the behaviour and misbehaviour of creatures from another world can throw light on human behaviour and misbehaviour. There’s nothing like exploring the actions and reactions of a fairy arriving in the middle of modern New York or Tokyo or London or Moscow to adumbrate the peculiarities of those worlds that would otherwise be taken for granted. The point here is that people like their tutoring to be nicely gift-wrapped – and stories involving other-worldly creatures can do that very well.
- Bad Boyfriend/Girlfriend. One of the most important boxes that a new boy/girlfriend must tick is the one marked ‘parental disapproval’ – or even ‘peer disapproval’. Just so long as someone disapproves. This person is bad for you – they are no good for you – they are leading you astray – they are forcing you to run with a dubious crowd – etc. There’s nothing more alluring than that – and every time a girl falls for a vampire, or a boy gets entangled with a chimera or a succubus, it’s the ultimate bad-lover fantasy made real. And the great thing about vampire boyfriends of succubus girlfriends is that they can be really hot. Bad and hot and dangerous. What’s not to love?
- Novelty. Sadly, part of the upsurge of interest may simply be novelty. For many years (in the UK at least) fantasy and magic were frowned upon by the literary and cultural elite. This meant we had to go through a couple of decades of grim reality before a new generation of overseers arrived with different ideas. In the 1990s I wrote a book about how to write for children. One of the things we were told to emphasise to wannabe children’s writers was to avoid any mention of dragons. Fifteen years on, I was working on the fourth revision of the book, and publishers were telling us that anything with dragons in it would be super-terrific! I rewrote the passage, embracing all things dragon – but with the caveat that in another ten years time the wheel will probably have turned and dragons would be anathema again. It’s all part of the cycle of publishing – so grab the good stuff while it’s around – publishers right now are probably desperately trying to come up with some way of rejigging Shades of Grey for kids.
What do I enjoy most? That’s a tricky one. I’ve loved things faerie since I was a 10 year old kid – and my ambition was always to write a fantasy trilogy. I think what I enjoy most is the clash between the real world and the world of fantasy. I remember particularly enjoying the scenes in The Lost Queen where some of the faerie princesses came through into present day London and encountered things like cars and peanut butter and electric lights and night clubs for the first time. Of course, the other side of that coin is the joy in putting a person from contemporary London into a Faerie realm and seeing how they deal with that. My other great joy is description of unreal things – a castle made entirely of seashells, a meadow of flowers that change colour when the wind blows – a circle of standing stones that glows iridescent blue in the night – a moon that is always full – spirits that dwell in trees and rivers and hills and can be called upon to create magic spells and enchantments. It’s the freeing of the imagination, I guess, that really lights the creative fires. The realisation that anything you come up with, so long as it can be explained in words, will work – no matter how strange or unbelievable or weird.
We will head into overkill at some point, and the popularity of faerie will wane – especially when the next generation decide they want their own thing and not the cast-off genres of their older siblings. So, enjoy it while it stands in the sunlight. All too soon, the dragons will be forced back into their caves to wait for the next time of ascendency. Its the way of the Worldly and the Otherworldly. But ultimately, Myths never die and the people of Faerie are pretty much immortal.
In some ways it’s vampires all over again. We have what can be extremely beautiful and powerful beings, who are usually playing by a set of rules mortals will never get more than the barest grasp on. (Which is both seductive and terrifying.)
When I was about six, I discovered my aunt’s copy of Faeries (by Brian Froud and Alan Lee.) Even though I was familiar with the basic children’s fairy tales, I became obsessed with this book. The descriptions and the art made it very clear to me that the path to Faerie can be a very dangerous place to tread. There’s a certain callous disregard for mortal life that the Fae seem to exude – unless they have good reason to consider you valuable in some way, becoming involved in their affairs is often a deadly thing to do. Even the Fae who are more mischievous or kindly in their actions can quickly turn on a hapless human who accidentally stumbles through a Faerie ring or breaks some Faerie law, all unknowing.
Whether they’re fallen angels or fading gods, dark elves or good neighbors, so many cultures make reference to the Fae in some fashion. What’s interesting is that most of them acknowledge their existence on one hand – but also indicate that it’s best not to attract their attention on the other. Fortune may come to pass, but not without a price. (A clever person might very well strike a bargain with them – but be careful what you ask for and how you phrase it. Faeries are often extremely literal in their wish fulfilment.)
Audience fascination could be for any number of reasons – but I think for YA, the changeling aspect is probably one of the strongest pulls. How many of us felt as though we didn’t fit in growing up? Maybe we wished we had different parents or families. The beauty of the changeling story is that very discovery – that we are more than we thought we were – and more importantly, maybe there is some other place out there where we *do* belong.
(And of course magic powers, ethereal beauty or immortality are all potential bonuses. Toss in a handsome prince or princess as a love interest and there you go.)
For me, I like writing about Faerie because it gives me the chance to explore some potentially darker subjects than I might otherwise. There are so many different facets to the lore that it’s probably impossible to touch on them all, but it gives me a lot of great things to work into a story. Faerie taps into some very primal fears and emotions – of the unknown, of the dark, wilderness, sex, death, freedom. It’s often about letting down one’s inhibitions and what happens when you do – and there’s a fine line between civilization and savagery. The concept of Faerie allows us to straddle that line thematically, turn our passions loose and see what happens.
Having worked in the teen fiction section of BookPeople for six years…I’m not sure that Faerie is any more popular than it was in the past. Frankly, I feel it’s always been a staple of YA fiction. My theory is that most of us were given fairy tales as children. So, most of us can relate to stories about faery–regardless of our cultural background. Young adulthood is a transition from child to adult that involves abandoning quite of bit of the familiar. I believe faerie is popular in YA because it’s an aspect of childhood that doesn’t have to be packed away. In fact, faery can fit quite nicely (or not nicely as the case may be) in an adult environment. As for the fascination with the darker aspects…well…faery works well as a metaphor for adulthood, if you think about it. Adulthood can be frightening and dangerous. The rules can be equally foreign to young teens. Everything and everyone isn’t what it seems. Adulthood is equally as seductive and magical and powerful, but it comes at a price. There’s no going back to childhood once that line is crossed. If you’ve ever read Women Who Run With the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, you’d know that fairy tales and myths were used to pass important life lessons from one generation to the next. So, it shouldn’t be a surprise that faery has so much staying power in YA. YA is what fairy tales are for.
Fairy tales are about teaching, and to be honest, I’m a teacher at heart.
What do I enjoy most about writing in the world of faerie? Mythology has been a love of mine from an early age. Also, Surrealism is my favorite art movement. I like the dreamy quality of fairy. Above all, I love its depth. So, I prefer searching beyond Disney or even the popular American ideals of faerie. I like questioning too. Why are names supposed to be so important, for example? Where did that idea come from? What is a geas? Were fairies always tiny little creatures with butterfly wings? If not, when did they become that and why? Fairy tales have transformed over time, you see. And while they’ve mutated, they’ve kept their original symbology and meaning. Those archetypes speak to us on a deep, deep psychological level. Mind you, I do warp things a bit in my own way, but I prefer to take things back to the very beginning or as close as I can get and then take a left turn. I feel it’s important to understand the story’s original structure and floor plan. That way, when I make changes the changes fit the story on a more meaningful level. They aren’t just tacked on any old way–at least, that’s my plan. I believe in working with a purpose. I’m not always 100% aware of what I’m doing, mind you–particularly when I’m working on a first draft. However, I definitely believe in being aware of what the story is saying by the second draft. All that sounds so serious, but there’s an aspect of play to it too.
Well, I can tell you why I’m fascinated with the world of faerie – a very well-stocked public library in my hometown of Lawrence, Kansas. The fairy tales were one row over from the children’s fiction, and after I’d pored through the fiction section for the millionth time—my greatest find was discovering Diana Wynne Jones via Witch Week—I found that there were a whole bunch more of fantasy stories being kept from me just a few feet away. They had all of Lang’s color fairy tale books, as well as a large number of collections by country, by type of fey creature, and so on. (Also, Carl Sandberg’s Rootabaga Tales were over there—another strong influence.)
There are a number of things that fascinated me here. To start with, fairy tales are listed under non-fiction. In my mind, they were one step closer to being possibly true. But another, huge thing I loved about them was watching the stories ring the changes. “Beauty and the Beast” is different from book to book, and then you pick up “East of the Sun and West of the Moon” and it takes that story a half-step away, and then you read all those variations. “Well-known” stories like “Sleeping Beauty” and “Snow White” are notoriously more violent the farther back you go. Plus, read far enough and you’ll find the story of “Snow-White and Rose-Red”, which, though technically different than the other Snow White, feels like another variation in Snow’s possible story, due to the similarity of names. Throw in a dose of Diana Wynne Jones’ multiworlds theory from her Chrestomanci books, and you learn to see everything in triplicate, or perhaps fractally.
This was a key thing for me when writing Ironskin. I never felt like there was one set way that fairies—or any other magical creatures—had to be. The world of faerie felt like that collective swamp of the unconsciousness where we’ve retrieved half-remembered bits, and sometimes they come out one way, and sometimes another. There was room to create a story about my fairies, my “fey”, who are more like amoral streaks of light and energy than like capricious, charming Tinkerbell. I love Peter Pan, don’t get me wrong! And Emma Bull’s and Pamela Dean’s fairies in War for the Oaks and Tam Lin respectively, both of which I only finally read last year and loved to pieces. Not to mention Jo Walton’s version in the incredible Among Others, and Diana Wynne Jones’s in one of my all-time favorite books, Fire and Hemlock—oh, I could go on and on. Each with their own take on the fey. There’s plenty of room in the swamp for more than one type of fey creature to emerge, and be this world’s version of the story.
Filed under: Mind Meld
Like this post? Subscribe to my RSS feed and get loads more!