Wonderous, glamorous, magical fairies.
They frequent our childhood stories and brought to them a sense of magic and wonder. From the fairy godmothers of Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, to the elves of ‘The Elves and The Shoemaker’ and Tinkerbell from Peter Pan, these beings from the Other Side captured our attention in stories well told, often depicted as benevolent and helpful. They have fantastical powers, spells and magic used for good and to aid the protagonist of the tale.
But the fairies we knew from childhood, and our perception of them, change as we grow older.
With time, we learn new things; how we are never to give our real names to the fairies and to never eat food offered by them. To treat their rings and trees with respect and that disrespecting them invites trouble. We discover that the beings we know as fairies have multiple names – the Fae, the Fair Folk, the Lords and Ladies, the Gentry – even the spelling of the word differs, carrying with it an alternate meaning.
Fairy, in our minds, turns to faery, and we no longer perceive them as harmless, magical creatures but ones we are to be wary of. We learn that they are cunning and tricky, and as cruel as they are kind. The enchantment of childhood lifts, and a spell we never knew was cast is broken.
Fairy to Faery
The word fairy and faery are often used interchangeably, thought to be a simple discrepancy in spelling and, in a way, it is. They have a similar word origin, Latin’s ‘fata’ meaning The Fates, which turned into ‘faeries’ in Old French. From there, it was borrowed and modified into ‘fairies’ in English, and then Edmund Spencer reintroduced and popularized the archaic spelling in 1590 with his poem ‘The Faerie Queene’. Common usage of both these spellings throughout the years has muddied the waters to the nth degree, until it becomes difficult to draw a concrete line between the two.
However, while these two words lack in distinct differences, subtle ones abound. These two words paint two vastly different pictures in one’s mind.
Fairies and fairy tales are what we associate with the ones from our childhood: the fairy godmothers, the Tinkerbells; The always kind and the always good. They are the ones that children wish to meet, to dance with, and play with, out in the woods and the flower fields. With them, it’s bright colors and laughter.
Faeries, on the other hand, mean something different.
Faeries are regal, glamorous and enchanting. Instead of the smaller, winged fluttering fairies, faeries are often human sized. They have their own world – a dimension onto itself – their own hierarchy and social order. They are described as beautiful, magical, and powerful… But powerful does not necessarily mean good. When talking about power, it’s the kind of power matters.
And here? It’s the kind of power that invokes wariness and apprehension.
…It’s the kind of power you fear.
Faeries are known to be tricksters. Words have power – names even more so – and the faeries bend them to their will. It’s their greatest tool. They weave enchantments and twist meanings, and a deal with a faery always has its catches. The colors associated with them are no less bright, but it’s the striking warning colors of nature’s most dangerous. You could argue that ‘faeries’ is an umbrella term, one that includes the aforementioned benevolent fairies as well as the more cunning faeries and others of the same magical kind such as elves.
Arising from A Midsummer Night’s Dream
The change from blind trust to the wary admiration is a gradual progress. For most, there isn’t a singular pivotal changing point. Instead, the stories we consume helps the change along.
One such story is Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
A tale of lovers and mishap, it focuses on the tangled affections of four Athenians and the chaos that arises from magical intervention. It is played as a comedy but hidden between the lines of this fun play are subtle things that make us question the nature of fairies. In this story, Shakespeare uses the spelling ‘fairies’ for the magical creatures, unintentionally tying our childhood preconceptions to them and setting to motion its change.
The fairy king and queen, Oberon and Titania, are at odds in the tale, arguing over a human child who Titania wants to raise but who Oberon wants to serve under him. It is this that spurs Oberon to use a love potion to embarrass Titania and force her hand – and already, this sets a different tone. The questionable choice of using a love potion and the immediate intention to shame Titania suggests that these magical beings are not above underhanded means to get what they want.
The misunderstandings and blunders in the play are caused by fairy mischief – by Puck, under orders from Oberon. Oberon saw the Athenians and tasked Puck to resolve it by dripping the love potion into Demetrius’s eyes. Yes, his intentions were good, and it was Puck’s mistake that threw it all to chaos but was it right to intervene at all?
Arguably, their intervention did more harm than good, breaking friendships and starting rivalries. And though righted in the end with love triangles resolved, it left Demetrius in love with Helena but by enchantment. Is it true love when magic is involved? Or will the effects fade in time and simply bring heartache later down the road?
And what is often forgotten in the midst of chaos, is that Oberon gets his way in the end. The child becomes one of his underlings in the faery realm. It is written off as a quick conclusion, the focus more on the cumulations of the love stories, but it speaks a lot about how these fairies treat humans – a bartering tool, a token. In its essence, the child is taken out of this realm and into the one of fairies – an acknowledgement, possibly, of the tales of fairies stealing children and leaving in its place changelings – and though the mother was a follower of Titania and hoped her child would be raised by her, it does not happen.
Lastly is Puck; Robin Goodfellow, a fairy under Oberon and the instigator of all the mishaps. He is, by far, the biggest influence in changing our perceptions. He doesn’t look like a conventional fairy – in fact, he’s described as strange-looking and a ‘hobgoblin’ in Act 2, Scene 1, and is generally depicted as cruder – while his mischievousness is meaner, evident in his glee in turning a man’s head into a donkey’s and making Titania fall in love him. It challenges what we know about fairies and forces us to merge this image of a not-all-beautiful, not-all-nice creature with the existing regal, wonderous one we have.
Breaking an Illusion
The hints of the faeries’ less savory nature in ‘A Midsummer’s Night Dream’ and stories like it are faint and subtle, but, once aware of it, leads you to notice it far more. It opens up your mind to the possibility that faeries can be questionable, can be tricky and cunning, so when we learn the warnings, we know it to be for a reason.
It is not to say we don’t like faeries anymore – their wonder still amazes us and sparks our imaginations – but we’ve grown a healthy sense of caution regarding them.
And, as the stories tell us, it is not unfounded.
Written by Jamie Tan Jean Minn