You may have notice in my posts that I have an interest in fairies and Faerie. I have found that it is best not to mention this interest in conversation. The usual effect is stares which seem to say, “Fairies are for three year-old girls. Why are you (a young adult male) interested in fairies?” For this reason I have thought it best to explain myself.
Fairies have been around for a long time, at least since the middle ages. The medievalists were consummate organizers, believing there was a place for everything and everything should be in its place. Everything in the cosmos was ordered according to a vast interconnected hierarchy. The result was a worldview of surprising order and intricacy while at the same time being sublimely beautiful. The one group of beings which lived outside of this hierarchy or alongside of it were the fairies.
An example of such a fairy is found in the medieval poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. As King Arthur is holding a New Year’s Day feast a half-giant holding an axe shows up. His hair and flowing beard are green along with his richly ornamented clothes, the only characteristic he shares with Tinker Bell. When the people of the court see him they “forþi for fantoum and fayry3e þe folk þere hit demed” or deemed him to be a phantom and a fairy.
Since you probably don’t have time to run through the rest of medieval literature about fairies I will give you some of their general characteristics. First is that they always surpass human beings in appearance. If a fairy takes the guise of an ugly woman then she will be ugly beyond the lot of mortals, usually to comic effect. If a fairy woman is beautiful then even her handmaids will be more beautiful than the most beautiful mortal woman. If on a rare chance you travel to the fairy king’s castle then it will be as glorious as the New Jerusalem. Second, they live separate lives from humans. A fairy story occurs on the occasion that when fairies intrude on human affairs. This gives fairies a sense of “wildness.” Though generally good they are not safe, their ways are not our ways. Finally, in whatever way their world overlaps with ours the border is in the wild wood. Wandering alone in the woods is the most likely place to meet a fairy.
An important characteristic of fairies is that they existed at the same time when Christianity was a powerful creative force in Europe. The existence of God did not negate the existence of fairies, rather fairies were given a place within the world that God created and oversaw. God and the fairies coexisted peacefully like this until the Enlightenment.
J.R.R. Tolkien blamed the exploration of the natural world for the shrinking of fairies into the pixie like Tinker Bells that are popular today. As the Enlightenment expanded its influence the entire world was explored and mapped, from the continents and oceans to the inner workings of cell. There was no longer any terra incognito on the map. As the unexplored space grew smaller, so did the fairies. With no more wild places to hide the medieval fairies died.
Another reason why I think the Enlightenment led to shrinking and disappearance of fairies is that Enlightenment thinkers believed in a closed world. A closed world is one in which nothing either supernatural or subnatural intrude on the natural or material world. Miracles were considered impossible and God, if he did exist, was like a cosmic clock worker, winding the world up and letting it run on its own. Fairy stories and fairies could not exist in such a world being marvelous and other-naturely beings. God was removed from the equation and fairies were made into small silly creatures which could never threaten the safe material world. Just as no serious adult could take seriously the story of Jonah and the Whale so fairy tales became the domain of the only group which could still enjoy them, children. Whether this is because they are more gullible or because they have not yet be taught that enjoying fairy tales is childish is a topic for another post. My opinion should be clear.
It is matter of debate whether people gave primary or secondary belief to the existence of fairies, whether they believed in their actual existence or whether they were a little like little like Santa Claus or zombies today. Five hundred years from now historians may have a hard time figuring out if we actually believed that these beings existed.
For those wanting to get a framework from which to think about fairies and fairy tales the best two things to read are Tolkien’s essay On Fairy Tales and his short story The Smith of Wooten Major. The Smith of Wooten Major demonstrates Tolkien’s genius by being a fairy tale about fairies and fairy tales, showing you what a fairy tale looks like instead of just telling you about them like me. It is also worth noting that Tolkien used the world elf and fairy interchangeably in his early writings about Middle-Earth. His elves are the closest modern relatives of the medieval fairy. In the next post I will try to explain why all this is important.