I love fantasy, I always have. It brings more possibilities than any other type of fiction and has been the way we as a people have told stories our entire existence But for all the amazing things in fantasy, so many authors seem to draw from European history and myth, as well as other familiar tropes. While that’s all and good, with these posts I will explore the other realms of fantasy, the lore we don’t see too much, and the potential they have for the fantasy of the future.
As I mentioned last Thursday, I want to do a post on Lore every week (right now that’s going to be on Mondays). I have always loved the monsters that pop up in fantasy. I remember buying the third edition Monster Manual even though I didn’t even play Dungeons and Dragons (Sure, my friends loved Inuyasha but God forbid they should play D&D). I read that thing dozens of times.
So, without further adieu, I give you the Lore of the Fay.
I was first introduced to the Fay in fiction through three sources. The very first would be Terry Brooks, who has the Fairy Mists and the various Fay folk on the Landover series, but a lot of fantasy I read growing up didn’t use them very much. You see them in Terry Brooks, but not in Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, George R. R. Martin*, Robert Jordan, any of the major stories that have defined our genre. There are probably a bunch I’m missing or forgot (feel free to add them in the comments), but it just seems like they didn’t feature very prominently in the generation that grew up on Tolkien Elves, sure. Dragons, you bet. More dwarves than you could shake a stick at and all kinds of goblins and orcs, but rarely the Fay.
Which is kind of odd. The Fay (or Faye, or Fairy) are one of those subsets of myth and fantasy that have been around forever. They have a large presence in European folklore and were a common story trope in Shakespeare and oral stories like those collected by the Brothers Grimm. For several hundred years if something was unusual, spooky, or just didn’t look right it was a fairy, had been touched by a fairy, or was made by the fairies. They were an entire class of being that anything and everything could be blamed on, the commies and terrorists of their day. They were a part of the world our ancestors lived in and part of everyday life was learning how to avoid and ward yourself against them.
Now, I said our ancestors, but the Fay are really a European thing. The Celts have a huge collection of them, and that seems to be where Kevin Hearne (The Iron Druid Chronicles) draws most of his inspiration. If you want to see some good world building and great use of magic, gods, and Fay, check out his first book.
Anyway, it may sound kind of discriminatory to say our ancestors when I am only referring to Europeans, except that a lot of other cultures had very similar legends, they just attributed them to a different kind of being. From Asian to Arabian, all cultures have myths of spirits or beings whose only seeming goal in life is to make mortal’s lives hell. The Djinn are often times seen as spirits who could effect the real world, the Loa (which ride the line between spirits and gods) of Haitian Voodoo cause all kinds of mischief if the proper rights aren’t observed. In Japanese Shinto, the Kami are the spirits of everything (literally, everything has a Kami) and can be good, bad and everything in between. Not to mention Angels and Demons.
This all comes from human nature, the desire to want to assign blame to something. It can’t just be that someone got sick or that the crops died, there had to be a reason, and since none were apparent, there had to be an invisible, mysterious one. Mind you, this isn’t any knock against religion, just an analysis of superstition, and yes, I believe there is a difference.
The books that really got me into the Fay, and so far are still my favorite uses of them, were the Dresden Files by Jim Butcher and The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. I started reading both authors the exact same time after getting Name of the Wind and Storm Front for Christmas one year, and I remember initially thinking one had copied the other, because all the traits of the Fay were the same. Unbeknownst to me, these type of ideas (such as a vulnerability to iron) were common tropes often linked to the Fay, in the same way sunlight is to vampires. It was the first time I heard all the little quirks that now seem second nature; cold iron hurts them, the culture of gift giving, their batshit crazy nature. And a ton of other authors, especially urban fantasy, use them a great deal now.
And there’s good reason for this. Part of the fun of using them in a story is that they don’t have a traditional nature like the cultures we see ingrained with elves, dwarves, and all those other fantasy archetypes. They are chaotic, and as a result, flexible for the writer. They can be Lords and Ladies like you see in a Midsummer Night’s Dream, horrific monstrosities, or raw forces of magic. They can be symbols of just about anything the writer is trying to get through to the reader; exemplifying nature, emotion, humanity, whatever it is the writer needs. I watched Snow White and The Huntsman the other day, and even though it was stupid, I loved the whtie hart that represented nature. It had spectacular imagery and did a fantastic job of being a literal representation of life.
Their variety is also incredibly varied. Any commonly told myth has variety, there are dozens of different types of vampire, but I don’t think there is any group that includes as eclectic an assortment as the Fay.
Take the Nuckelavee for example. In legend, this is described as a centaur whose legs are part fin with an enormous gaping mouth and a single giant eye, which burns with a red flame. Some sources describe it as as having both a horse’s head and a human head and torso, the latter growing out of his back, with black blood and no skin.
I mean holy shit, that’s a several hundred year old Scottish (Orkney actually) myth, and is more terrible than anything I’ve ever seen in a Clive Barker movie.
But that’s the joy of the Fay, their flexibility. Their own origins describe them as gods, spirits of the dead, lesser angels, elemental forces, a hidden race of people, even raw components of alchemical formulae. There are few classes of beastie that could fit that many possibilities.
Part of the reason I decided to to the Fay as my first Lore post was because I had already prepared a good bit of this article beforehand. The sequel to Sorcerer Rising features the Fay prominently and I wanted to write about how much fun they had been to write with. In my world, they are a sentient force of nature, and they effect everything around them. Their homeland is a living continent that pops in and out of reality, rarely in the same place twice. Its denizens are so influenced by magic that they radiate it, warping reality around them. If you get too many Fay together, there is no telling what could happen.
As a result, it is a license to go wild. The whole reason I am doing these Lore posts are because of my love of bestiaries. Being able to encompass anything my imagination can dream up has been a lot of fun, and the Fay allow that.
I hope this was enjoyable and informative. As I said, there are a ton of things I haven’t mentioned. If anyone has anything to contribute, I would love to see it in the comments.
*Spoiler: It is kind of beginning to look like the Children of the Forest are Fay and still around, but I we didn’t really see this until a Dance with Dragons.