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What is a Fairy?

Updated on November 4, 2021

In folklore and in formal literature, fairies are inhabitants of the land of the fays, an underworld often localized under a hill and near a forest where the little people dance in fairy rings set off by mushrooms or by grass greener than the surrounding glade. Man has filled the earth with these elemental beings.

Theories of fairy origin are many. Fairies may he thought of as remnants of heathen gods-the Irish Tuatha De Danaan and the Amazonlike Queen Medb, who became Shelley's Queen Mab. In other accounts they are spirits of the elements- the salamanders of fire, the undines of water, the gnomes of earth, and the sylphs of air. In still other tales, fairies are fallen angels who fell as far as middle-earth but not as far as hell. Fairies may also be envisioned as spirits of the dead, akin to ghosts who walk by night.

Though they have kin in many regions- the nymphs, nereids, oreads, and dryads of Greece, the little foxes of Japan, the dwarfs, kobolds, trolls, and nixies of Germany and Scandinaviatheir major habitat is the old Celtic regions of Britain, Ireland, and Breton France. Here the Latin word fota, for the goddesses who rule human destiny, waS adapted as tee to fit these tiny people who only at times interfere with mortal lives.

Kinds of Fairies

Folk imagination is better at creating kinds of fairies than at rigorously classifying them, but three of Shakespeare's little people can be cited to illustrate notable varieties. Ariel, Titania, and Puck range from the ethereal to the earthly. All three are friendly to mortals, but all three are amoral and cannot be judged by Judeo-Christian values.

Puck, or Robin Goodfellow, is a goblin. Tn amuse his master Oberon he leads horses astray. As a crabapple he lurcnes in an old woman's drink and makes the ale spill on her chin, or disguised as a stool makes the, goody slip to the floor when she sits down. Titania, Queen Mab's double as Fairy Queen, is enchanted by her husband Oberon and dallies with the ass-headed Bottom the Weaver. Ariel serves the magician Prospero as the Arabian jinn serve Aladdin or Solomon.

Puck is akin to the brownie, a household familiar for whom the 'housewife puts out saucers of milk. Titania is of gentle but sensual sister too the immortal who lured. Tam Lin in the ballad to fairyland as a tribute to hell or who gave Thomas of Erceldoune the gift of prophecy. Her descendant is the lady in Keats' poem La Belle Dame sans Merci. Though Ariel fights for his freedom, he serves his master well.

Fairies in Literature and Legend

With its strong Celtic heritage Arthurian romance provides the best-known accounts of fairyland, above all the immortal damsels like Niniane, who bewitched the enchanter Merlin, Morgan Ie Fay, who set up the beheading game for Gawain and the Green Knight, or her enemy the Lady of the Lake, who reared Lancelot as a child, gave the sword Excalibur to Arthur, and received it from him again as he went to. live with her in Avalon after his passing from mortal life.

The beliefs linger in tales of fairies helping men with their chores, poltergeists ravaging the house, and fairy mothers borrowing human midwives or placing their own misformed changelings in the place of human children. Other stories tell of little people beguiling with fairy gold that turns to ashes, or food that ages humans when they return to earth.

Ireland remains noted for tales of leprechauns and shee (hill folk). Even in the 20th century it has been considered perilous for any statesman or writer to show skepticism about these creatures of earth, air, fire, or water.


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