The famous Irish fantasist Lord Dunsany coined the evocative term ‘the fields beyond the fields we know’ to describe fairyland but there are many other terms for this place, including the Twilight Realm, the Otherworld, Elfland and Faerie. There are just as many names for the mystical inhabitants of this Other Place: they are variously called fairies, the Good Neighbours, the Fair Folk, the Fey, the Fiah Ree and the Gentry. Whatever they are called, they have been around as long as humans have told stories around camp fires. They are the heroes and villains of folk tales and appear in dreams and works of the imagination of all kinds, whether they be paintings, plays, poetry, music or motion pictures. So ingrained are they in the collective consciousness of mankind that it seems almost impossible to believe that they do not exist – so pervasive and consistent has their influence on human creativity been throughout recorded history. They have been worshipped as deities in some parts of the world and even in other, supposedly more enlightened places, the most cynical of people take care to throw salt over their shoulder when it is spilled, to avoid walking under ladders or stepping on cracks in the pavement. A cracked mirror or black cat crossing one’s path are still seen as signs of bad luck, proof if any were needed that superstition lives on and that wherever people believe in magic they believe in the Fair Folk. As well they might, for there are many who swear that the Fey are real and not only that, these Good Neighbours supposedly live among us. They may be out of sight and often out of mind, but nevertheless they are there and it is said that we would do well to mind them.
The word ‘fairy’ comes from the Latin fatare (meaning ‘to enchant’) and part of the reason why so many synonyms for the term are used is because of an ancient belief that it’s dangerous to call the fairies by name and thus catch their attention. This may seem an unnecessary degree of caution if the image that pops into your mind when you think of fairies is that of tiny winged sprites flitting through the woods. But the fairies of folklore are far more varied, and often considerably scarier, than the ones found in most children’s picture books. Some of the Fair Folk are good, some are bad, but the vast majority are known most of all for their unpredictability. The Fey can be helpful one moment, naughty the next and on occasion they can be downright nasty. In folklore, the Faerie come in a bewildering array of shapes and sizes, from the noble Sidhe of Celtic legend to the mischievous Cornish pixies, from sinister kelpies who haunt Scottish pools to the loyal Domovoi who protect Russian hearths, from the Orisha of Africa to the fox-faced Kitsune of Japan and a thousand others. In all of these tales from around the world fairies can be simultaneously enchanting and terrifying, both charming and exasperating, hard to find but equally difficult to get rid of, shifting their shapes in different stories and sometimes within the same story. Almost every country has tales of elementals, changelings, undines and shapeshifters but nowhere are tales of fairies quite so varied as they are in the British Isles – which is probably why we find so many of them in English literature, folklore and mythology.
Many of the most common traditions concerning fairies are derived from British and Irish legends. For example, in terms of weaknesses the Fair Folk are known not to like cold iron, which burns them to the touch, and hence they will not go near it. Unable to use cold iron, the Fey use flint arrowheads or ‘elf-shot’ instead. Rowan and certain other herbs, such as St John’s wort and four leaf clovers are also anathema to the Fey, as is running water. On the other hand, baked goods, cream and butter are a traditional offering to the Folk. Bells occasionally protect and sometimes attract fairies. The following can bring the wrath of the Fiah Ree down upon mortals, unsuspecting or otherwise: digging in Faerie hills, chopping down thorn trees, being messy in homes with brownies, and offering fairies clothing or compliments. As for their origins, some say the Faerie are the disembodied spirits of the dead, others that they are elementals, while a third belief is that they are fallen angels or devils. The Faerie are thought to reside underground in burial mounds, ancient barrows and cairns – sometimes these places are called The Hollow Hills. The Silver Bough allows mortals to enter and leave the otherworld when it is offered to the worthy as a guarantee for safe passage and food during their stay – although it is always best to make sure that all food consumed within the borders of Elfland is given freely and without obligation (just to be on the safe side). To know the name of a particular fairy could summon it to you and force it to do your bidding. The name could be used as an insult towards the fairy in question, but it could also (rather contradictorily) be used to grant powers and gifts to the user. A common feature of the Fey is Glamour, or the use of magic to disguise appearance. Fairy gold is notoriously unreliable, appearing as gold when paid, but soon thereafter revealing itself to be leaves, gorse blossoms, gingerbread cakes, or a variety of other useless things.
Throughout history, the Fey and their Twilight Realm have been a constant source of inspiration for writers, poets, painters and musicians. The Fair Folk can be found in many of the courtly romances of the medieval period – such as the Lady of the Lake, who gives King Arthur his magical sword Excalibur. Shakespeare himself seems to have been well-versed in traditional English Faerie lore, for he borrowed liberally from this tradition to create the fairies who quarrel, scheme and cavort in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest. Fairies are also the subject of Edmund Spenser’s epic poem, The Faerie Queene, written in the late 16th century. The English Romantic poets Coleridge, Southey, Shelley and Keats all wrote poems about fairies, perhaps the best known of which today are Lamia and La Belle Dame Sans Merci. In the 19th century Sir Walter Scott did much to preserve such important ballads as Thomas the Rhymer and Tam Lin and in so doing educated his readers about the value of Scotland’s folk heritage. In visual art, painters such as Richard Doyle, Joseph Paton and John Fitzgerald among others created an entire genre of Victorian fairy paintings, which were hung in prestigious galleries and Royal Academy exhibitions. The art of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, in particular, depicted scenes from legend and myth. William Blake, Henry Fuseli, Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti were all artists who passionately believed in Faerie.
But it was in the Victorian period that there was a development that was somewhat detrimental to the formerly perilous, alluring appeal of fairies – they were seen more and more as the subject of children’s books. By the 19th century, European fairy tale collections from the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson were proving popular with English children and their parents. Publishers, editors and writers took note and soon homegrown volumes of fairy tales appeared, though toned down and de-sexed for younger readers. It was from such books that came the concept of fairy tales being full of twinkly creatures with butterfly wings and good little boys and girls. It was not until an Oxford don named J R R Tolkien wrote about elves in a place called Middle Earth that the Fair Folk were rescued from Disney cartoons and saccharine fables and restored to their original grandeur, danger, power and unearthly beauty. In one fell swoop Tolkien dismissed the post-Victorian idea that fantasy was fit only for children by reaching back to an older tradition running from Beowulf to William Morris. The success of The Lord of the Rings helped to establish an entirely new publishing genre of fantasy fiction for adult readers; as a result, a new generation of writers has turned to folklore and myth for inspiration. Now fairies seem to be everywhere: Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks brings them to the 1980’s Minneapolis music scene, Charles de Lint’s Moonheart brings them to urban Canada, Holly Black’s Tithe brings them to the Jersey shore while Midori Snyder’s Hannah’s Garden brings them to an Irish bar in the American Midwest. This is to name just a few of the fine fairy novels in the fantasy genre and the phenomenon is by no means limited to literature: there are brilliant fairy artists like Charles Vess and Brian Froud following in the footsteps of their 18th and 19th century forebears; modern folk bands like Steeleye Span and Annwn have recorded traditional ballads of Faerie; and of course there is a myriad of fairytale inspired films like The Princess Bride, Stardust and Pan’s Labyrinth.
The distinguished Irish poet W B Yeats, who believed in the supernatural all his life, once said of fairies that ‘you cannot lift your hand without influencing and being influenced by hordes of them’. I’m inclined to agree with Yeats’ view. The pulse of the Otherworld still runs through the streets of every city. You can see it in the clothing, the architecture, in the brilliant fire of CGI and the insatiable hunger for the fantastic. Take almost anyone aside and soon enough you’ll hear of secret trysts with the unreal: psychics, ghosts, aliens and angels. Virtually everyone has such stories, even when we all (supposedly) know that such things don’t exist. It seems that despite its best efforts present day technology hasn’t entirely banished the Land of Faerie – the stories conveyed in literature, art, music and motion pictures speak for themselves. The fields beyond the fields we know remain as familiar yet elusive as they have ever been.