Faerie versus Fairy

by Mary Jo Putney & Karen Harbaugh (a 1998 Write Byte)

LLB: I recently read and thoroughly enjoyed Irish Magic II. It reminded me of a question I've had on my mind for quite some time now. If you've read many historicals set in Ireland or Scotland, you'll no doubt have noticed that the land of faerie can be a dangerous one. Why do we in this country have this benign and rather cute view of fairies (Tooth Fairy, etc), when the Irish/Scots view is so different? The best I could come up with was that the Church had to turn the pagan faerie evil in order to advance Catholicism. Because Mary Jo Putney had participated in the Faery Magic anthology, I put my question, along with my conclusion, to her. She set me straight, and directed me to Karen Harbaugh with her response.

 

Mary Jo Putney:

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Great question! Actually, I suspect that it isn't Catholicism, but paganism, that's at the core. British faeries were rooted in the old animistic, pre-Christian deities. They are always shown as closely tied to nature - powerful, beautiful, unpredictable, sometimes cruel. Rather like nature is regarded in all primitive societies, I think. Placate the local deities, and they will grant blessings. Offend them, and suffer.

When people immigrated to this country, they brought the fairy tales and told them to their kids, but the stories were cut off from their primal roots. They became - just stories, no longer a form of traditional wisdom. And of course this country was such a melting pot--if there are a dozen traditions co-existing in one neighborhood, none of them are going to have great power. They become picturesque, not powerful.

The person to get going on this is Karen Harbaugh - she is a fabulous analyst of underlying patterns!

So, I got in touch with Karen, who participated with Mary Jo in Faery Magic. She has also included a bit of magic and the paranormal in many of her Regency Romances, including The Vampire Viscount and her Cupid series. Here is what Karen had to say:

Karen Harbaugh:

Blame it on Disney.

Actually, you could go back farther than that - you can blame the Victorians. Victorians tended to "prettify" and "weaken" anything of a mythical or spiritual nature. For instance, the angels in the Bible were definitely male (though there is also evidence in old legends and religious texts for female angels) of great strength and power. John Milton, in his Paradise Lost poem of the 17th century, has powerful male and female angels. William Blake, the visionary Regency-era poet and artist, painted his angels as muscular and powerful men. Keats, another Regency-era poet, in his poem, La Belle Dame Sans Merci, has in it a dangerous and extremely seductive adult female faery. No baby cherubs or Tinkerbells there!

But after the Regency era, around the beginning of Queen Victoria's reign, people started depicting both faerie and angels as teeny little children or tiny, almost sexless females.

Gone were the seductive male faeries - like Barbara Samuel's Love Talker (or Gancomer) in the Faery Magic anthology - who made women delirious with desire. Barbara's hero was based on real legend. Gone were the powerful male angels who wielded swords and wrought vengeance upon evil...and at one time looked on the daughters of men and found them desirable. The premise in the recent movie, City of Angels, is closer in spirit to recorded legend than people think.

Why the Victorians did this, I'm not entirely sure. I know they put the upper class and middle class women on pedestals, and claimed they were the civilizing force of mankind. Excuse me, not "force" - influence. Moral Victorian women were not allowed to be forceful. They were supposed to be meek and mild. In other words, women were supposed to be wimpy female angels and the guardians of men's morals (thereby, I suspect, allowing men to not watch out for their own morals and blame it on women if men went wrong somewhere).

And hey, since fairies had wings, just like angels, they must be female, too, only very tiny, because they can't be as good as angels, not being Christian. Yeah, I know, a backward sort of reasoning, but there it is.

Disney took up where the Victorians left off, and in fact made most of the fairy tales in Disney movies fairly saccarine and bled them dry of their power and danger. This version of fairies and fairy tales became widely spread, and that's what's stuck with us ever since.

To this day, on Christmas or on any other day, you'll see nothing but female or baby angels, or female or child fairies. Makes you wonder how they propagate.

Mary Jo is right in that the Irish/Scots/Gaelic version of faeries - in fact, most "old country" versions - is based on old pagan beliefs and the belief in nature spirits. Some were small, some were human-sized or larger, some were hideous, and some were extraordinarily handsome and seductive. They could be as unpredictable and as cruel as nature, or as kind, because they were of nature, influenced it, and were influenced by it.

I also agree with Mary Jo that the fairy tales and beliefs in the faeries were watered down more as they immigrated to this country. But the Victorians had already done the damage, so to speak, before the great waves of immigrants came here.

I like the old versions the best - it makes for fun stories and great conflict. Besides, there's not a lot you can do with sexless Tinkerbells as main characters in romance novels.

 

Mary Jo Putney's website
Mary Jo Putney at AAR
Karen Harbaugh's website
Karen Harbaugh on the Regency
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