By Jo Zebedee
In 1917, two cousins who lived in Cottingley, England, produced photographs they claimed were of fairies that lived at the bottom of the garden. The photos, now known to have been faked, showed sweet fairies who danced and interacted with humans in a charming fashion. It presented a picture of fairies that was accepted by many: benign creatures, sharing our world and gardens in an unthreatening manner.
Through the Disneyfication of Tinkerbell in Peter Pan (the original Tinkerbell is somewhat darker, with mercurial moods and much greater vindictiveness towards Wendy, in particular), to sweetly drawn flower fairy books, there is an aspect of fairy portrayal that sits in a vastly more lyrical place than that of the folklore that exists in Ireland and throughout the Celtic world.
The Irish Fae are, if not feared, at least respected. In some parts of Ireland, north and south, actions are still taken to actively repel fairies from houses. Milk is left on doorsteps as an offering to placate the small folk. As recently as 1999 an entire motorway bypass in Co Clare was rerouted so as not to require a fairy-thorn tree to be destroyed. It is common to see a single tree, normally hawthorn, in the centre of a field and the farmer working around the tree rather than bringing it down. Great danger is supposed to befall those who fell such a tree.
The Fae are at best mischievous, often malign, and even downright dangerous. They are not to be trusted, they play tricks, they change shape. They steal babies, make the milk go sour, stop the crops from growing.
It is hard to know. They may have their roots in a race of mythological heroes, or they may have been an indigenous race in Ireland. Their history was passed through the oral tradition, often as myth, and what remains was largely captured in writing by monks who put a Christian spin on the tales, leaving us with tattered stories that can be interpreted in many ways.
Take Oisin, the son of Finn Mac Cumhaill (Finn McCool, to some) and one of the greatest of the Fianna. He was a human poet, warrior, and bard from whom many of the remembered stories are related. But he is also linked to Tir na nog, the land of the youth where the fairies dwell. Whilst he dwelt there, we are told, years passed in the human world but more slowly in Tir na nog. When he returned to the real world, he aged, and was taken to St Patrick as a wizened man to whom his story was narrated and, it is purported, was baptised before he died. This tacking on of a Christian narrative saved his tales for generations to come, but it isn’t known what other stories were lost.
We do have some information, however. In the Book of Invasions, a fictitious history of early Ireland, the Tuatha de Danann (the people of the Goddess Danu) are portrayed as human, and in The Annals of the Four Masters they are shown as a tribe who ruled Ireland from 1897 BC to 1700 BC. They were a cultured people, held in high regard, whose reign ended with an invasion by the Melesians (the forerunner of the modern Irish people), who consigned them to the land below the ground, and the Melesians to inhabit the overworld. These worlds are connected in thin places, most commonly where a fairy mound exists, and the Tuatha de Danann became known as ‘aes sidhe’; the people of the mound. From the description left, we begin to move closer to the description of fairies we are familiar with – incredibly beautiful, tall, slight, with light skin and striking eyes, and long golden hair.
It is this richly alluded history that lends itself so well to stories about the Fae. That they were once human gives a range of motivations and space for human emotions. That they were tricked out of their land gives space for vengeance and a means of reaching our world through the thin places, through our lack of care, through placing their baby in crib in place of a human. It gives opportunities, and sympathetic reasons, for them to be malicious in their nature. In short, it places the story teller in the fabulous space of having conflict at the centre of a fantastical story that feels and often is very human.
Some of the most striking modern portrayals of fairies draw on their darker side. Jo Walton’s Hugo and Nebula award winning Among Others, is visceral in their depiction, earthy and real and not of us. She sets the story in a Wales that draws upon the land, people and language of the place, making the fairies organic to the setting and all the more real for it. Hers are not cruel fairies, nor benign, but presented as something alien to human understandings.
Also of note is Jeannette Ng’s Under The Pendulum Sun, which cleverly takes a missionary-like approach to the Fae, visiting Arcadia, their land, in an attempt to convert the Fae to Christianity. It shows their glamour, how they play with the minds of people, seeming and unseeming in ways humans can’t quite understand.
In both books, the intrinsic nature of our lack of understanding is explored, as well as the games that fairies play on mortals. In both, the underlying nature of those games is danger – the Fae play with humans as if they were toys.
Peadar O’Guilin’s fabulous The Grey Lands duology takes this further. Incorporating the mythology of the Fae, he blends it into a modern horror tale. To do so, he cleverly invokes many of the Irish legends of the sidhe, blending them into a secondary world based enough on our mythological understandings to become soberingly plausible. In the series, he doesn’t shy away from the darker aspects of the Fae legends and celebrates the gruesome. We are shown the Fae as deadly, breaking the humans they have returned to take vengeance on. But we also see ourselves in their need for vengeance: displaced, diminished by others, becoming numb to the suffering in the face of their own.
O’Guilin’s is very much a modern take on the Fae legends, refreshing them and bringing them to a modern audience, much as Ruth Frances Long does with her Dubh Linn books, showing a Dublin with cracks to the secondary world. Perhaps this is the crux of why the legends continue to be reimagined and written about: with a linked world to ours, unreachable except through the earth, we have room to imagine things differently: to take our world and reflect on it from another perspective. This can be twisted, and the readers’ understanding played with. In my own fairy fantasy, Waters and the Wild, the fairies are as much a mental hallucination as they are real. They prey on the trope of the changeling, leaving us in doubt of what is real and what is a trick of the eye.
As much as Yeats and Lady Gregory reshaped Fae mythology for an early 20th century audience, reflecting their world into the stories of the past, we now take the modern world and set it against the stories, seeking new knowledge through that process.
As a gateway to the traditional stories, Marie Heaney’s The Names Upon the Harp is both true to the original and yet fresh, and beautifully enhanced by P. J. Lynch’s stunning artwork. Ian McDonald’s King of Morning, Queen of Day is a wonderful modern take. But Fae stories extend beyond Irish literature, with some great examples from writers as diverse as Holly Black (her Spiderwick Chronicles have a great feel to them) to the late, great Terry Pratchett in Wee Free Men. With a subject as wide as Fae-mythology, it’s easy to blend with other mythologies as well as with other places and people. There are established cross-overs between, for instance, the Arthurian legends to Welsh and Irish mythology. This was how stories were shared in the oral tradition, carried from one place to another as shared knowledge and understandings. It’s what keeps them fresh and real, and appealing to each new generation. It is, perhaps, the ultimate reflection of our past: the story that doesn’t end but reinvents itself to give new meaning, time and again.
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About Jo Zebedee
Jo Zebedee is a science fiction and fantasy writer based in Northern Ireland. Apart from a brief foray into Space Opera, her work is mostly set in Northern Ireland. Her fantasy book, Waters and the Wild (Inspired Quill, 2017), set in the Glens of Antrim, deals with themes of mental health and its impact on family relationships. She will be publishing a second fantasy book, The Wildest Hunt, with Inspired Quill in 2021, this time set in Glenveagh, Donegal. When not writing, Jo works as a consultant and also runs The Secret Bookshelf, a bookstore in her home town of Carrickfergus.