I’ve been reading a lot about faeries. Before they became benign, animated symbols of childhood, particularly feminine childhood, they were much darker creatures – manifestations of people’s fear. Faeries were, in fact, born from fear. In their earliest incarnation, they represented primal fears. Fear of the dark, fear of dying, fear of one’s own body or natural processes.
Over time, faeries evolved, but they were always the creatures that made things go wrong, particularly with women, children, childbirth, and child rearing. Changelings – creatures who took the place of a human baby – were a real threat.
Faeries were also a manifestation of things people couldn’t say. Of taboos and things too awful to be spoken of.
Eventually, they became linked with the idea of perfect innocence and childhood, but even that was not without its darkside. Faeries were linked with desire and sexuality; every child grows up. No child remains perfectly innocent forever, and for many children, particularly poor children, that innocence ended well before childhood did. Innocence was something only the children of the wealthy were able to hang onto.
Sometimes faeries could be helpful, but always for a price. They were not initially the good and gracious guardians of unfortunate humans, like they are now. They were something much more sinister, creatures to be appeased at best and avoided if possible.
In times when the world was a smaller place, before technology that allows us to communicate with others in far away places at the touch of a button, before literacy became a norm instead of a privilege, people were able to project their fears onto faeries and the faery world. They were able to explain things that were frightening, disconcerting, or difficult to understand by attributing those things to faeries and faery motives.
Though the stories didn’t necessary quell their fears, they gave their fears a form. A fear that is nameless and formless is much more frightening than a fear which can be named and described. A fearful creature that has motives can also potentially be bribed, appeased, or outsmarted.
Faeries, in some ways, were people’s way of controlling and processing their fear.
What are we left with now? Where do we project our fears?
It’s tempting to say, “Onto the ‘other'”, and when I first started thinking about this, I thought, that explains a lot. But being an avid reader of history, I know that people have always feared other people who are different from them. Racism and xenophobia and misogyny existed side-by-side with faeries. Faeries didn’t rescue us from that fear – in fact, they may have amplified it.
So what are we left with now? In the 21st century, where are our faeries? Where do our fears go? How do we give them shape and form and substance?
I suppose one new form that they’ve taken is that of the alien. But aliens aren’t creatures that many people see as real. They’re part of our cultural lore, part of science fiction and fantasy. When we watch movies or read stories about alien invasion, it’s not because we literally fear an invasion from space creatures. Such narratives are usually metaphors for something else; some are nothing more than merely entertainment.
In some ways, some faeries have survived the onset of technology and science. There are fundamentalist religions that still believe that demons exist and are actively playing a role in mucking up the lives of human beings. But such people are seen as extremists by mainstream society.
Another possibility are ghosts, but even they have been undermined by science. I think more people want to believe in ghosts than actually do believe in ghosts. (I count myself among those who would like to believe, but simply can’t.)
In the 21st century, where do we go to find faeries? Are they still hiding in the forests, existing just out of our reach? Or have they been eradicated in the wild, and relegated to fluffy, glittery childhood companions, things to be discarded as silly and unnecessary once the child gets older? Modernity and secularization demand that we put aside childish things in order to cross the threshold into adulthood; at other times in history, a belief in faeries was not something that was pushed aside, but maintained throughout one’s life.
Of course, faeries looked a lot different then. Even their appearance in the 20th century changed radically; most of the time, the world “fairy” will conjure up the image of Tinkerbell, or fairy godmothers, or some other animated winged creature, usually female, and usually some sort of guardian or helper. Faeries were not such pretty, peppy creatures until very recently in history.
The Victorians were the last generation to have some measure of belief in faeries, though Victorians were interesting in that they were of two minds about a lot of things. They seem to have lived in a state of cognitive dissonance, all the while being aware of that cognitive dissonance. As a result, they had a lot of anxieties.
The 20th century mind, with its science and rational thinking, decided it no longer needed faeries to assuage its fears, and so gave them over to children to play with and leave behind once they were ready to embrace adulthood. The process of letting go of one’s belief in things like faeries, or Santa Claus, or the myriad of characters that children believe are real, is seen as a sign of growth and maturity. An adult who still believes in such things – be it faeries or ghosts or demons – is an adult who is subject to ridicule by the majority. We have become a society that demands evidence in order to believe something – and sometimes continually refuses to believe even after evidence is presented.
I’m not sure we have anything like faeries anymore. And I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. Faeries existed for as long as they did because people needed explanations. Much life religion, our cultural mythologies offered us explanations. They offered us rules and warnings. They helped us to make sense of the world. They gave us something to blame for life’s hardships. When living side by side with religion, they helped people to process loss and hardship, and to even embrace those things, because suffering in this world would lead to rewards in the next.
Faeries were, in some ways, helped us to accept our lot in life. Bad things will happen because faeries exist, and faeries are bad. But if I follow these religious rules, and stay within these cultural norms, then ultimately god will reward me for my obedience and my suffering.
In other words, This is not for nothing.
I think the main difference of the past 100 years or so is that, as religion is no longer universally accepted, and cultural mythologies have been relegated to fiction, is that lacking supernatural creatures to blame, lacking a supernatural being hovering above us with the promise of an eternal reward, we’ve had to put our faith into things like science. And science doesn’t always give us the answers we want to hear. It’s much nicer to think we’ll go on living in some form after death than to accept the fact that death is permanent, and final, and all consciousness ceases.
But most of all, we’ve had to put more faith in each other. And humans are not faithful creatures – we’re capricious and messy and easily programmed, trained, and influenced. And we’re still haunted by primal fears – death, the dark, the unknown, things and people that are different.
I’m not sure that the transformation of faeries from manifestations of our fears and anxieties and suppressed desires to children’s tales has done much to help us process our fears. More than 100 years after science made us rational and logical, we now face people who reject scientific evidence in favor of holding on to religion. Religion offers a much more promising ending – which is to say, no ending at all. So now we have people who are threatened by anything that can threaten old ideologies and usher in change.
As scary as the world was with faeries in it, it seems much more frightening without them.