Building a Better Predator: Fae and Fairies
Monstrous Ecology of the Fair Folk
In today’s edition of Zen and the Art of Screaming, our intrepid author takes a look at the culture-spanning origins of the tiny tricksters known as the fae.
The fae are an interesting subject. Not quite gods but remnants and aliens of previous cultures, fae and faeries are frequently identified with barrow mounds (ancient places of the dead where supernatural occurrences happened). The fae are not a singular entity; they are a collection of individuals and mythologies all dealing with remnants of old religions, ancient tales, and cautionary stories. There are some things that are universal about the fae: don’t eat or drink anything in their land, don’t make any open-ended promises, and don’t take anything from them.
They are known for being tricksters, performing pranks like moving people around so they get lost, having them drink things that are not what they seem, or using a glamour on rocks and leaves to look like gold and money. They are also known for punishing people for greed, for rude behavior, and for lack of foresight. They give gifts to the needy, the kind, the unfortunate, and are destructive and dangerous to the inconsiderate, the cruel, and the selfish.
They have an ability to use their glamour skills to make objects, including themselves, appear more attractive or otherwise disguised. It is from fae we get the word “glamorous.” Why do they have these abilities? It varies from story to story; sometimes it is how they hunt, using it to lure prey in and sometimes it is there to conceal them or the paths to their lands.
There are untold varieties of fairies, though there are some that show up in folk tales more than others. The Puca, who often stage themselves to look in danger or lost near a water source, enjoy luring humans into traps [ 1 ]. If a human shows greed and tries to claim the Puca for their own, things go poorly for the human. They often find themselves stuck to the fae, who then rides them into the water and drowns the offender. Drowning is a very common death among stories about the fae.
Jenny Greenteeth, a famed hag of the fae who drowns and devours children, is one of the Puca [ 2 ]. Similarly, the Slavic fairy creature the rusalka is an underwater monstrosity that drags people under the waves [ 3 ]. These tales, by and large, got their origins from people who thought about various ways to stop children from drowning. “Water is very dangerous, and I might not be around all the time, so how do I stop children from going near the water and drowning?” The simple answer is that you fabricate a monster that keeps your children away from the reeds. Tends to work better than swimming lessons.
Fae as Myth
While the fae don’t always fit in with the monstrous metaphor, they are in many ways object lessons to be sure. Such as in the tale of Rip Van Winkle, where the titular hero wanders under the hill and ends up in the land of faeries and doesn’t come out for more than 20 years [ 4 ]. Many cultures have their own group of fae and a “reason” why they don’t act the way other fae do. This is due mostly to cultural separation for example, the Pooka is Irish, Jenny Greenteeth is English, the Rusalka is Eastern European.
Rip Van Winkle is an American tale, which means it uses American fae. Many of these American stories feature remnants of previous immigrant cultures such as the Red Cap—a Scottish fae said to live in peel towers and various other fortifications, guarding borders and eating the hands and feet of their enemies, their distinctive name coming from their caps being soaked in the blood of their enemies (the fae are, if nothing else, poetic) [ 5 ].
The modern image of the fae, the little girlish fairy with the fancy little dresses and the butterfly wings, are a recent invention which started in the early 19th century and are the product of trick photography, and stories told by two little girls [ 6 ]. These two were budding, but brilliant, con artists who were selling doctored photographs of fairy creatures to any mark that would buy them. Creatures of that description do not appear in mythology. The modern, pixie-like flower fairy is not a member of the quite terrifying pantheon of ancient fairies, but that doesn’t mean they have no place in their history.
However recent the pixie, or pisky, is in history, it did not prevent them from quickly becoming famous. The most famous fae might be Tinkerbell, who despite having been Disney-fied for the film Peter Pan, is still quite ruthless and quite the vicious little sociopath who wants to murder Wendy at all costs in the original J. M. Barrie story [ 7 ].
In the book, she seems not to care a whit about one of the Lost Boys getting hurt but literally tries to blow up Wendy. She is a monster who tried, even in the Disney version, to kill Wendy no less than four times. In the 21st century, she has been rebooted to be nicer and friendlier and much more girlish, with Disney especially deciding to create a younger version as opposed to the angry, jealous, and very womanly design of the original 1953 Tink.
The newer version, as displayed in the Disney Fairies series of children’s books and animated films, is not a psychopath; she is an adventuresome young lady with friends she cares about. Her new outlook is to work hard, do your best, and display teamwork and caring for all [ 8 ].
Skipping back in time to the original pixies, however, you will find they are dangerous and violent creatures much closer to Tinkerbell’s original characterization. They could create will-o’-the-wisps, which were little balls of light that would lead travelers astray to your demise. The tricky bit about the will-o’-the-wisp is that some of them would lead you to treasure, causing the unwary to go back and tell their tale, which would then convince others to follow them to their doom.
Meanwhile, other “little people” as fairies are often called, are noted for having a malicious streak; in the modern age the most notable film which highlights this violent and malicious nature is Leprechaun [ 9 ].
Leprechauns and Other Fairies
Leprechaun, or clurichaun, are mischievous creatures who safeguard a pot of gold. Anyone who’s ever had a bowl of Lucky Charms knows the story, or thinks they do. They were also seen in the book and the miniseries American Gods, where they were shown to be aggressive and violent for good reason. People most often come after them for their pot of gold which they will defend with a vigor. When asked how much gold he had the leprechaun said, “I don’t know, how much is in a hoard” [ 10 ]?
They tend to be quite vengeful when their gold is stolen. You steal his gold, he comes for you, and when he catches you, it is unlikely that you will be able to do it a second time. This is much different from the original tale, where you could answer a riddle or manage to catch them and you would get their gold free and clear.
One of the most common stories is that you get challenged to a drinking contest, and as the horrors of the fae stories go, this looks like a good time either way. They aren’t particularly known for carting people off or doing any baby swapping or anything like that; they’re respectable fairy monsters in which the best way to catch one is to get them really drunk. Good luck trying to outdrink one though as they are supernaturally powerful. Other examples of the fae in movies would be the ones in the second Hellboy movie, The Golden Army [ 11 ]. Ron Perlman is brilliant as the title character, but the film truly shines in its depiction of the fae as tall willowy creatures which can be traced back to Tolkien, in which they (the elves/fae) were portrayed as tall, frail, pale and very like Galadriel.
No story about the fae would be complete without some of the later fae, the most notable of which would be developed during World War I—the gremlin [ 12 ]. Gremlins have a couple of movies to their credit and kind of exploded into popularity around the ’80s; before that they were showcased in more than a few Bugs Bunny cartoons. Its origins can be traced back to the push into the industrial age and the mass production of machines and equipment. Due to the hurried nature of our entrance into the industrial age, stress tolerances in machinery were less than they could be.
Odd noises and breakdowns became common; these failures were often blamed on small destructive creatures known as, you guessed it, gremlins. The creation of the gremlin is no surprise, as people frequently make up monsters to explain things they couldn’t to cast blame on. In this case they want to explain the failings of dozens of hastily constructed and poorly engineered factory complexes.
The gremlin was the embodiment of the fear of sabotage, which was a big deal then and still is, as well as the inexplicable nature of technology to fail when most inconvenient, which most of us have experienced. This is something engineers and construction personnel understand but at the time it was literally unknown to the common man. Unfortunately, when science is not known, mythology and superstition rear up to answer these burning questions of why.
A lot of “cousins” to the gremlin do exist in mythology; it merely depends on the time frame and the location. Kobolds, or tappers, are creatures that inhabit mines and tap on walls to inform miners of danger [ 13 ].
In the modern age we understand that the tapping sounds indicate rocks under pressure, which could be gas or water or fractures in the rock, but ignorant miners called them what they would, and young miners had figured out that if you heard tapping, something bad may be coming their way. Those that heeded that warning would eventually become old miners. This makes kobolds some of the rare instances of “good” fairies, though modern depictions, such as in Dungeons & Dragons [ 14 ], would say otherwise.
Another wee creature of legend known as the Kilmoulis is indicative of anti-Semitic sentiment at the time of its inception. It would break into mills and suck up all the flour through its enormous nose, though modern audiences might be tempted to make cocaine jokes instead. Suffice to say that history paints it as an ugly cousin to the brownie, but it is a greedy little big-nosed thief, which is obviously anti-Semitic.
Other fae include church gaunts or church grims—big black dogs that guard graveyards and the dead; as you can see, a fair amount of the fae are not what you expect, despite their fearsome reputation. Indeed, many of them are doing their best to help humanity. The church gaunt can be trace back to the goddess Hecate and her Irish equivalent, the Morrigan. Hecate, who has as one of her symbols a large black dog, would use dogs as guardians for humans since the dawn of time.
There is also a connection between dogs and Hell/the underworld that has existed since the ancient Egyptians, with the jackal-headed Anubis being the adjudicator of whether you deserve entrance into paradise. Meanwhile, as Hecate is a goddess of the underworld as well, you can easily see how after generations of her existing filtering through the layers of cultural drift she would end up having her symbol being these four-footed guardians of the dead. Of course, after the purges caused by the Christians, heathens that worshipped the old ways hid the roots of the existence of the church gaunt but kept the job title.
Westworld is, in essence, a realm of fairies. While on the surface it is science-fiction, in truth it is firmly in the realm of magical wish fulfillment [ 15 ]. It tests you and sometimes punishes you. Despite the culture and stories about robots, the story isn’t about the automatons themselves. It’s about the people and what access to this realm does to them. For the record, I recommend watching Westworld. Yes, even the original as context is important. However, the newer version is so much deeper and complex than the original. For example, there is a scene in the newer version where Anthony Hopkins is threatened by a rattlesnake and he holds up his hand and the snake stops. This is just a throw away scene unless you have seen the original, in which the first robot to go rogue is a rattlesnake that bites somebody [ 15 ].
In Westworld nothing is real, it is all make-believe; everything is an illusion, making it very much like the realm of the fae. The fae themselves are the embodiment of trickery and lies. However, they have a certain code that allows them to be very truthful because it confuses the humans.
Much like the will-o’-the-wisp, the treasure is the truth of their intentions, but death is more often the result. Much like the realm of the fae, the journey into Westworld is to journey to another world where all your wishes can come true—but you will be tested and you will be judged and, much like those in the lands of the fae, you may not ever return. Some become so changed by the experience that it stays in their hearts and minds, forever changing them fundamentally as a person.
Another recurring theme is the circle. In ancient mythology, a circle of mushrooms was said to be a fairy circle. Mushroom circles were often considered a gateway into the other world. Going around (counterclockwise) a barrow mound was considered a gateway to the underworld, under hill to get into the fairy world.
This also ties into Westworld, because whenever they show a newly created robot, it is in the form of the Vitruvian Man in a rotating circle. It is a running symbol throughout all of these genres; a way to tie them all together. The circle being a gateway between one world and another.
As a person who tells stories for a living, and who has many storytellers as friends, I know that the protagonist is the ultimate expression of the storyteller; lives don’t matter there, whether someone is real or created also doesn’t matter. All that matters is the story. I find I have a great deal of sympathy for that creator character, for I too would love to be a god of my own world as I think any sane person would.
In the new series, Anthony Hopkins’ character may deride another for reveling in telling hokey, over-the-top, shocking stories, but upon a second viewing, new things come to light. As someone who has run interactive stories and games, it became easy to point out the different plot hooks the characters walk past as they disembark a train; the character making a speech about joining the Union army to fight slavery, the character who bumps into him and reaches for his gun, the girl looking helplessly from the sidelines, the little kid selling newspapers—every single thing the human characters walk past is a story waiting to be born, and one of the most common interpretations you have of the fae is that they are a story waiting to happen. They are literally made of story.
This idea of “fae as story” can be seen in in Neil Gaiman’s work, Sandman [ 16 ], where the fae are frail, pathetic creatures but they are so masterful in their illusions that they appear as mighty princes and kings in all their glory. Dream punishes one fae so she can live in his house free of all the politics of her people, but she not allowed to have any illusions, as the lord of imagined things would value truth more than anything.
This takes us once again back to Westworld and the comparison to the fae, where there is a concerted effort to uncover some preternatural truth. We are not sure what truth is being sought, but it’s undoubtedly to uncover something quintessential about human nature.
This relates to the fae because of the way they steal human children and leave changelings in their place. When the fae see a young child, their sense of justice—alien and ineffable to humans but perfectly logical to themselves—compels them to take the child. To the fae, a child spending their short, nasty, brutish life surrounded by filth and disease only to die in squalor, is inherently unjust; instead, a child taken to the fairy lands will live a clean, happy life, free from all pain and injustice (much in the way a human looks at a dog and seeks to adopt it as a pet). In exchange, the fae leave behind a changeling child for all the hapless parents to raise instead of their human child.
I have had a discussion with some of my friends regarding autism, which does tie into the fae. People in the old times would say “my child changed; I don’t recognize them—they are a changeling.” People in the modern age say autism didn’t exist until they created it in the ’90s. This is of course completely ridiculous; autism has always existed, whether we had the right words for it.
Instead, we created stories to explain a child’s suddenly inexplicable behavior, which ties back to the original premise that monsters are symbols for things we don’t want to talk about, things we are afraid of, or things we don’t want to face, but things we need to. The changeling came about because, without access to medicine, science, and all the other discoveries we take for granted in the modern age, people needed something to grant them peace, something that made them feel better about a bad situation and to give them some way to understand the world around them. So, they turned to what they always did: religion and superstition. This could very well be the origins of the changeling myth.
Games and Media
Fairies and changelings have been obviously represented in games and other media. The most noteworthy (and perhaps most fun) is the White Wolf role-playing game Changeling: the Dreaming, though the game has gone through a number of iterations since its inception [ 17 ]. There are other games that have changelings with varying amounts of pretentiousness and or silliness.
There are many games that have the fae and variants thereof, and not just White Wolf games. One noticeable exception is Talislanta [ 18 ]. There are no elves in Talislanta, which was one of the game’s marketing catch phrases. As an aside, there are other strange folk that make up the potential fae list, including dwarves, gnomes, and little hairy people of all types that like living underground and engage in mining and craftsmanship. They are often an expression of small forge gods and things of that nature. Most often they are portrayed as being Germanic or Scottish. This is often due the reputations of Scots being engineers (perhaps a cultural echo of the original Star Trek) and the idea that German technological prowess is highly advanced (a remnant of World War II tales of German mad scientists).
On the more childlike side of things, we have to bring up David the Gnome [ 19 ], a cartoon portraying David as a Gnome elder (voiced by Happy Days father, Tom Bosley) who wandered around the woods helping people and animals out of any trouble they may have found themselves in. In this case, David the Gnome shows that all fae were necessarily evil; they were just different.
Speaking of odd fae tales, it bears bringing up the Friday the 13th: The Series [ 20 ]. It had nothing to do with the movies or Freddy Kruger and had everything to do with the classic “mystical shop where cursed items are for sale.” Everything sold had a Monkey’s Paw-level of backfire for those who purchased them. The show itself was painfully ’80s: it’s all big hair, leggings, and totally tubular headbands.
That aside, it was pure gold; the characters tracked down cursed items, several of them notable. The pen that you could write a best-selling murder story with if you stabbed someone with it or the scalpel that that could cure any disease provided you used it to kill someone first are excellent examples.
While not every item required a death—like the magical cloak that gave you time travel powers but only to the same day, or the brooch that turned you into a vampire—many needed their pound of flesh to operate. A wood chipper would spit out cash if you threw a human body into it. A teacup that would choke someone to death and transfer their life essence to you if you got someone to drink from it. There was even a collar that would steal the life from a human and give it to your dog to increase their life span.
The important part, besides the sheer brilliant oddness of these items, is that the series is an example of the cursed gift, a classic fae contrivance, which may grant you what you ask for as long as you’re aware there is always a terrible cost. That is, to put it simply, how the fae roll.
Last, but not least, is one of my favorite fae creatures, ones that I hold near and dear to my dark and twisted heart: goblins. Often portrayed as little, green, malicious monsters of unabashed evil, goblins are the other side of the coin to every light and good thing in the fae universe. There are several films in which goblins make a prominent appearance. Labyrinth is an obvious one, as it is creepy-crawling with goblins as far as the eye can see, and they are really a fun bunch [ 21 ].
Another personal favorite of mine is Scooby-Doo and the Goblin King, the particulars of which we won’t go into as we all know why they eat as much as they do so [ 22 ]. Goblins also appear in other mediums. One in which I have a real problem with is World of Warcraft, where goblins’ inclusion in the Cataclysm expansion has left developers accused of changing the tone of the game and skewing it too much to modern tastes [ 23 ].
The same can be said for the gnomes, another in-game race, who are indeed technically fae and are just as bad as the goblins in this case. Gnomes and goblins are often associated with each other as they are the dark and light side of the fae respectively: one is the dark reflection of the other, much like elves and orcs in Tolkien. It’s not uncommon for a theme. The goblin is akin to the demonic, devilish imp, as it is small, evil, and often up to no good.
Historically the gremlin seems to be the descendant of the goblin and they seem to fill the same supernatural ecological niche with the exception that one is an ancient destructive force and the other is a modern incarnation of the same level of evil, sort of the opposite of the shoe gnome or the brownie who would appear to do helpful household tasks. The goblin is the one who will trip you at the top of the stairs or move your belongings into locations where it is nigh impossible to find them and make your life a living hell, which is, of course, what I find endearing about them.
Goblins are often cannon fodder, due to their ubiquity and small stature. In most RPGs they are often used to fill out the ranks of evil armies akin to orcs, who are culturally close to just over-achieving, jock-like goblins. A lot of the fae pop up with little to no backstory and just do odd and mean-spirited things for the fun of it. A final word on the WoW goblin: they are not a medieval creature. They are a creature of technology, coded as a monster, and representative what happens when capitalism gets out of control. That is the goblin as they are, a dark reflection not of not the world they are in, but the player themselves and the world they are from. They are ruining a pristine world, a world where technology destroys and where the goblins have no care for what they’re doing. In a world where humans sell other humans for gold without a care is the horror that the goblin represents. He is small, like the smallest, weakest, and meanest part of us; the tiny little piece that we don’t want to admit is there. Just like the money we spend our lives chasing, he is entirely green.
- “From their ‘horror’ and campfire origins, Fairy and Fey iconography have permeated fantasy and speculative fiction for centuries, and have left their indelible mark frequently, even in our home décor.” Source: https://free-images.com/display/garden_fairy_roses_fig.html
- “As sanitized as retellings such as Tolkien’s, Lewis’ and even the Grimm’s Fairy Tales are, even the allegedly ‘darker’ subject matter is a mere sliver of the grim brutality and otherworldly horror of the original myths.” Source:https://stock.adobe.com/images/majestic-young-queen/515458200?prev_url=detail (“majestic young queen” by Andrey Kiselev, Adobe Stock.)
Ed Jones revels in unpacking the sociopolitical motivations behind popular culture and placing them in their historical context. An avid gamer since the early 1980s, a veteran, and the one-time God-Emperor of Newark, Delaware, Ed serves as a contributor to The Unconventional, as well as regular staff for Damocles Thread Development. His series “Zen and the Art of Screaming” is a thorough exploration into the horror genre’s tropes, its origins and evolution.
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