Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)

"Fairy" is an anglicization of the French faerie (enchantment), which absorbed and largely displaced the Anglo-Saxon "elf" (see Elves) after the Norman Conquest. The term first became common in the 13th century, although many relevant Folktales involving such beings had already been recorded by chroniclers such as Walter Map (?1137-1209), Giraldus Cambrensis (circa 1146-circa 1223) and Gervase of Tilbury (circa 1150-circa 1220). The Celtic mythology of the mound-dwelling Sidhe was, of course, accommodated within the framework, which was a confused multicultural ragbag long before literateurs got to work on it.

In the UK a good deal of fairy poetry was produced in the Elizabethan era, when Edmund Spenser borrowed extravagantly from Ariosto's Orlando Furioso (1516; final rev 1532) in producing The Faerie Queene (1590-1596), and Shakespeare provided the definitive imagery of A Midsummer Night's Dream (performed circa 1595; 1600). A rich tradition of British fairy poetry – enlivened by input from Wales, Scotland and Ireland, where oral culture was not so rapidly superseded as in England – extended from these beginnings to the early 20th century, eventually petering out in the work of such writers as William Butler Yeats and Alfred Noyes. New literary versions of traditional tales began to be produced on a prolific scale in France and Britain in the wake of Charles Perrault's Histoires ou contes du temps passé (1697; trans 1729) and Madame d'Aulnoy's Contes des fées (coll 1696-1698). Some familiar tales deriving from collections such as these do not actually feature fairies (see Fairytales; Wonder Tales).

In the wake of Perrault, fairies became commonplace in French 18th-century fiction, sometimes even intruding into fashionable tales of contemporary high society – although their most frequent milieu was Arabian Fantasy, whose demonic peris were transformed into a species of fairy. This tradition extended into the 19th century in such works as Charles Nodier's Trilby (1822) and La Fée aux miettes (1832). The German Romantic movement revived interest in Teutonic versions of fairy mythology; J K Musäus published five volumes of Volksmärchen der Deutschen (coll 1782-1787) and Ludwig Tieck produced his own Volksmärchen (omni 1797). Several writers associated with the movement, including Novalis (real name Friedrich von Hardenberg; 1772-1801) and Goethe dabbled in the production of Kunstmärchen ("art fairytales"). Folklorists (see Folklore) inspired by the Grimm Brothers' Kinder- und Hausmärchen (vol 1 1812; vol 2 1814) attempted – or at least pretended – to recapture the authentic Volksgeist of the tales they recorded, partly in the hope of helping to clarify a notion of "national identity" appropriate to a nation-state still in the process of formation. The most significant attempt to codify and explicate British folklore was Fairy Mythology (1828; rev 1850) by Thomas Keightley (1789-1872), whose Tales and Popular Fictions (1834) had analysed similarities between different folkloristic traditions in diffusionist terms. By now imitation folktales were being produced in great profusion by Hans Christian Andersen and others.

Edwin Hartland's The Science of Fairy Tales identified several major categories, among the most important being tales of "swan-maidens" (see Birds) and other Fairy Brides, tales of timeless sojourns in fairyland (see Time in Faerie), and tales of Changelings. More recent attempts to produce grand theories decoding the hidden meanings of fairytales and accounting for the remarkable endurance of the most familiar motifs include The Erotic World of Faery (1972) by Maureen Duffy, The Uses of Enchantment (1976) by Bruno Bettelheim and Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion (1983) by Jack Zipes, but it is not clear that any kind of all-encompassing theory is necessary; Katharine Briggs's The Fairies in Tradition in Literature (1967) carefully steers clear of any such commitment.

Fairies became popular in 19th-century UK painting, partly because nude female fairies were more acceptable to the Victorians than nude women, although the only material difference between the two was the addition of Wings. Artists like Richard Dadd, however, brought into focus a more sinister side of fairy life and helped retain the darker aspects of the traditional lore for use by writers for adults. Sara Coleridge's Phastasmion (1837), John Ruskin's The King of the Golden River (1851) and George MacDonald's Phantastes (1858) set important precedents in making the kind of fairy mythology which had been re-popularized by painters available for use in adult fantasy, the latter being quickly followed by Christina Rossetti's erotic verse fantasy "Goblin Market" (1862). Many writers of Children's Fantasies followed Macdonald in producing tales of considerable sophistication (see Fairytale). Once the fad for fairy painting had passed, the insectile wings became less common, but they have never quite become extinct in fairy images designed for children.

The retreat of Britain's fairies to some far-off exile was evoked nostalgically in "Titania's Farewell" (1882) by Walter Besant and James Rice and satirically in Andrew Lang's and May Kendall's That Very Mab (1885), but the loss became much more keenly felt in the decade after WWI, which produced several fine works lamenting the loss of a kind of illumination for which fairyland could easily stand as a symbol. Significant examples include Gerald Bullett's Mr Godly Beside Himself (1924), Lord Dunsany's The King of Elfland's Daughter (1924) and Hope Mirrlees's Lud-in-the-Mist (1926), all of which contrast strongly with the underlying ideology of F Anstey's In Brief Authority (1915), in which the rejection of the values of Märchenland is slyly endorsed. Although the acute sense of danger these works encapsulate soon evaporated, the march of progress merely paved the way for its return in the wake of WWII, when a new generation of adult fantasies – spearheaded by J R R Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955) but also encompassing Poul Anderson's The Broken Sword (1954) – reclaimed and renewed the Old English heritage of Elfland in the service of a new and spectacularly successful bid to ensure that the magic of Faerie could not be extinguished.

The post-Tolkienian elves which have displaced Frenchified fairies are of many subtly different species, important variants being introduced by The Kingdoms of Elfin (coll 1977) by Sylvia Townsend Warner – the most comprehensive account of the manners and politics of Faerie since John Hunter Duvar's highly eccentric Annals of the Court of Oberon (1895) – and such Sidhe-starring Celtic Fantasies as The Dreamstone (1983) by C J Cherryh and King of Morning, Queen of Day (1991) by Ian McDonald (1960-    ), but they are almost invariably finer folk than humans. The 19th-century image of the fairy is sarcastically "updated" in The Good Fairies of New York (1992) by Martin Millar, but more earnest versions are much rarer in adult fantasy than in children's fiction; one magnificent exception is Little, Big (1981) by John Crowley. [BS]

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.