Musings on Fiction and Tropes

Faeries – Good Guys or Bad Guys?

“My mother said, I never should, play with the pixies in the wood”.*

Warnings are rife in Fairy Tales. At least, in the old ones. The ones with lots of blood in them.

Good and Bad are such concrete absolutes which, at the same time, are so hard to pin down. They depend on so many things. I was at a museum with my son once and we were in the WWII section. He turned to me and said “who were the goodies? were we the goodies?”.  I tried to give him an historian’s answer, full of complexity and grey areas. He was four. He didn’t quite follow. So I ended up by saying “Yes. Yes, we were the goodies.” as my historian soul cringed a little at the oversimplification.

Obviously we have the good, pretty, fairies who live in flowers, and the Fairy Godmothers, and they’re counteracted by the evil fairies like Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty. Nice, clean, cookie cutter stereotypes. But I’m more interested in how and why fairies can be seen as benevolent or malevolent, and how we’ve changed to see them in much more complicated ways.

The Disney movie Maleficent is one of my favourites. It tells the story of Sleeping Beauty from the point of view of the Evil Fairy who curses her. In this retelling, we understand what turned Maleficent so bitter. We see the trauma she went through and feel for her. We’re on her side. We see the tragedy of Aurora’s curse through the eyes of someone who regrets ever having cast it. In this story, Maleficent breaks out of the cookie cutter villain mould and becomes a real, authentic person. She is a complicated character who does evil things through pain but who, at heart, is good.  Once Upon a Time also has a story for their Maleficent which, while still keeping her as a villain, humanises her through creating empathy for her loss as a parent.  Who is good and who is bad gets a bit more grey.

Generally stories about fairies involve either humans being helped by them or hurt by them.

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But can we also take advantage of them?

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This gif, and how Peter Pan takes complete advantage of Tink but ignores her once Wendy comes along, made me think of Once Upon a Time and their take on Tinkerbell (played by Rose McIver who, incidentally, was a student at my school in my first year of teaching. I did the costumes for the school show she starred in – she was a great and courteous actress then and she still is now). {Caution – spoilers if you haven’t watched OUAT. And if you haven’t, you should!}

In OUAT, Tinkerbell was stripped of her wings by the Blue Fairy for breaking the rules in order to help the Evil Queen find true love.

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She then ended up in Neverland, run by the evil Peter Pan. We meet her here, disillusioned and cynical. Hook convinces her, despite her reluctance, to help them rescue Henry (a child) from Peter Pan

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She returns with them to Storybrooke and then, through bravery and courage, is awarded back her wings.

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Of course, the kicker is that she always had the power to have her wings back, she just needed to BELIEVE in herself again.

The reason I bring this story up is that for me, Tinkerbell gets a really bad deal the whole time. Had she succeeded in her mission to find True Love for the Evil Queen, the whole curse might have been averted. I know that’s looking back with hindsight, but the Blue Fairy should never have stripped her of her wings. And letting her think that she could never get them back all the while she had the power to do it herself? Nasty. I like this telling of Tinkerbell because I think it shows both the good and bad side of fairies, and also how a ‘good’ fairy (old Blue) behaves in a way that is actually fairly typical of a ‘bad’ fairy – punishing people who go against her will.

Fairies are powerful. They are transformative. That opens them up to the potential for great good or great evil. But I think the scariest fairies are the ones who are indifferent to humans. We are so below them that they don’t think twice about stealing our children, leaving changelings in their place.  Enchanting humans and keeping them in their fairy hills for hundreds of years is not an act of malice, necessarily, but rather like a human might keep a wild animal as a pet.

This kind of Fairy, or Faery, is how they are depicted in Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson novels. Supremely powerful beings who are tricksy, cruel, but not necessarily evil. The first time I read this I was so enraptured because it changed the whole way I viewed the Fae. It seems to tap into the older, darker stories but with a more modern, urban edge. This was probably the biggest influence on how I portray them in my own writing.

I think that also taps into something deeper in the human psyche – for so much of history the vast majority of people have been under the power of a few. The rich and noble and royal who had absolute power, life and death. We see it in the rise of autocrats and dictators in the 20th Century. And today. Even with the rise of modern democracy in the Nineteenth Century, we still have little actual control over the decisions that shape our world. Faeries reflect that supreme power – they can be benevolent, dishing out rewards and wishes and hope, or they can be indifferent, doing what is in their best interests with little care for the desires of those who are beneath them, or they can be actively malevolent, seeking to control and destroy and to harm.  Perhaps that is why they are so prevalent in our stories, and why we now seek to understand them.

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* A note – although I grew up with the word ‘pixies’, the original is apparently Gypsies. Which makes it a very different and more problematic kind of song.