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Encyclopedia > Faeries
For other uses, see Fairy (disambiguation).
Take the Fair Face of Woman... by Sophie Anderson

A fairy, or faery, is a creature from stories and mythology, often portrayed in art and literature as a minuscule humanoid with wings. This word is derived from the name of a place where they were said to live: Faerie, and fairies are sometimes called fairy-folk. The myth appears commonplace across many diverse cultures and traditions. They have many names and many forms.


Celtic mythology

The Celtic peoples have many references to fairies in their myths and legends, and their nature is described in widely different ways. They are also known as 'the little folk', but this can also refer to leprechauns, goblins, menehune, and other mythical creatures. In Ireland, the fairies were known as the Sídhe, and in Scotland, the Daoine Sith, or a great many variant names.

The height of fairies was not always as consistent as is held to be the case today. Traditionally, fairies were often of human height or taller.

One consistent belief amongst the Britons was that the fairy people were weak against cold iron, leading to many of the iron-related superstitions that have existed, some of which survive to this day (for instance, the tradition of placing a horse shoe on one's door).

This belief has prompted some historians and mythological commentators to speculate that the fairies are actually derived from a folk memory of the people that inhabited the island of Great Britain before the Celts arrived. These people would have been armed only with stone, and hence iron would have been the decisive Celtic advantage.

In contemporary belief, fairies are often characterised as fundamentally benevolent in demeanour; this does not, however, hold true in many historical manifestations. The belief in Changeling children, for instance, where the fairies would steal away a mortal child and replace it with one of their own, was widespread in mediaeval times; this motif appears in the folk-songs Thomas the Rhymer and Tam Lin, among others.

Fairies in literature

William Shakespeare's play A Midsummer Night's Dream deals extensively with the subject of fairy-folk and their interaction with a group of amateur theatrical players. This work details the spell cast by the mischievous fairy Puck (at the behest of the fairy-king Oberon) on Oberon's wife Titania, who falls in love with the first mortal she casts eyes upon, the unfortunate Bottom, whom Puck has transmogrified into having a donkey's head.

William S. Gilbert liked fairies and wrote several plays about them. The best is the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta Iolanthe which deals with a conflict between fairies and the House of Lords and, among other issues, touches on some of the practical consequences of fairy/human marriages and cross-breeding in a humorous manner.

A more modern take on fairies can be found in the Discworld series by Terry Pratchett, most notably in The Wee Free Men and Lords and Ladies, which combine Nordic and Celtic elf and fairy myths to explore human perceptions and the origin of folk memories.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke presents fairies as creatures with a high capacity for magic and a low capacity for reason, (whereas humans are seen as beings with a high capacity for reason and a low capacity for magic).

An issue of the Sandman graphic novel series by Neil Gaiman deals with the "real" Oberon and Titania visiting a performance of Shakespeare's play. The issue won the World Fantasy Award for best short story.

Fairies in visual arts

Artists such as Brian Froud, Ida Rentoul Outhwaite. Cicely Mary Barker, Omar Rayyan and Sheila Rayyan, and Peg Maltby have all created beautiful illustrations of Fairies.

Conversely, the Victorian painter Richard Dadd was responsible for some paintings of fairy-folk with an altogether more sinister and malign nature. The Victorians in Britain were much taken with the notion of fairies in the wake of the Cottingley fairies photographs, and a number of artists turned to painting fairy themes. Another notable Victorian painter of fairies was the artist and illustrator Arthur Rackham.

In the Walt Disney animated series Gargoyles the fey, more commonly known as "The Children of Oberon" were featured heavily (along with many other mythological creatures), especially in the second season. Anansi, Anubis, King Arthur, the Banshee, Cúchulainn, Coyote, Oberon, Odin, The Lady of the Lake, Puck, Raven, and Titania all made an appearance.

Pibgorn is a web comic by Brooke McEldowney. The title character is a fairy whose adventures span the fantasy and real worlds.

See also

External links

  • Victorian, PreRaphaelite, and other fairies (http://fairies.artpassions.net/fairy.html)

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