Wednesday, 13 April 2011
Faeries Are Not Always Nice
Not Nice by Liz Williams
This is becoming an annual rant, but has usually hitherto appeared on LJ so I thought I would dust it off, wipe its nose, and present it to a slightly different audience this time. It is actually an example of a social dynamic that I find interesting, so I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on the subject.I last aired it in front of the students at Imperial, who had some typically informed things to say.
This time, it's fairies, but it could be vampires, unicorns, angels, or serial killers, all of whom have featured in this rant before. And we're hardly guiltless. We sell fairies, for pity's sake, and they are sparkly and so forth. But occasionally something comes up which implies the following: fairies (or unicorns, or mermaids) are ickle magical beings who live to love others and spread sweetness and light.
I grew up on British folklore, particularly the work of Katherine Briggs, whose memorial lecture is held every year at the Folklore Society. In her collected accounts of fairy folklore throughout Britain (and in Yeats' huge work, The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries), it is plain that the twee-ification of fairies is relatively recent (I blame the Victorians, who introduced a lot of the more child-based fairy imagery for reasons which have been examined in several doctoral theses and at least one book). But it has gathered apace over the last 50 years or so: fairies, according to this strand of the zeitgeist, are sweet, loving, honest and apparently, dedicated to helping people. Like angels, basically. This will raise the eyebrow of the average folklore enthusiast, or indeed, the average fantasy writer, to whom fairies are entities who snatch children and milk, who trick and deceive, who cannot be thanked, who make you wade through red blood to the knee and who will blind you if you see the wrong thing, who will give you a handful of leaves that you believe to be gold, who are tall and handsome until you catch them from the corner of your eye... I can't even blame Harry Potter for this as Rowling has done her fairy homework to quite a considerable degree and thereby copped massive opprobrium from the politically correct lobby.
Unicorns used to be savage destriers who would kill anyone who wasn't a virgin. That horn is there for a reason: it's a weapon. Angels are God's hitmen: warriors with flaming swords who strike down the unrighteous. Mermaids drowned sailors, once upon a time. Vampires used to be quite repulsive (look at Bram Stoker's version) and now they've become soulful James Deans who are just waiting for the right girl to come along (this is an example of a strand in Gothic and Romance writing which is particularly pernicious: the 'he's terribly dangerous but I can tame him'. The 'I' is usually female, and the idea is fine as a fantasy but leads to terrible trouble when applied to actual men).
There are exceptions: there's some very interesting fairy art around at the moment, drawing on sources other than the queasily Victorian. And if it makes the world a more comfortable place for people to render the alarming as safe, then that's up to them. Just because I don't like the aesthetic, doesn't mean, obviously, that people shouldn't engage with it. What does concern me, however, is that all of this feeds into the idea that this is promoting some kind of fantasy life: that paganism, which intersects with so much of the demographic of people who profess to believe in the above, becomes something that you turn to as an escape. Like any genuine spirituality, it isn't an escape, and to treat it as though it is, is to court disaster. Or at least, some lessons you really weren't expecting. There's a lesser issue - so much of this robs things of their original power, and their original magic. Maybe it's a genetic thing that makes us need to tame the wild, but it seems to me to be a shame.
Fairies wouldn't hurt other fairies? Yes, they would: they do it all the time. If you believe in them as real entities, their primary function is not to help you, any more than it's the primary function of angels or goddesses: you need to petition, and you need to give something back, and maybe they'll lend a hand, but it won't be in the way you expect. Folklore is the mirror of life and of the unconscious; the world of dreams is not a safe space.
And now I'd like to take this opportunity to announce my new book: "Demons: Why They're Really Cute."