There’s a reason the Irish curse the “fucking Fairies” under their breath. Forget everything Disney told you about these creatures. Human treasures are not what fae value. They don’t grant wishes (at least, not for cheap) and they don’t serenade you on your way to the ball.
But that doesn’t mean the fair folk are essentially evil. No. Their morality is incomprehensible to humans, based on largely incomprehensible laws and edicts from another, alien realm. Baffling, perhaps, but there are rules.
Mere mortals can understand that forgetting to invite a VIP to a birthday party is bad manners, but fairies take that as the ultimate insult and will curse you for generations for it. If you want to get into their good graces, you must perform seemingly mundane, but impossible tasks to gain, or regain, their favor. Otherwise, your head may as well be on the chopping block. Just leave the saucer of milk on the stoop, if you know what’s good for you.
But who exactly are fairies? What do we mean by the term? Since they’re so varied, could any European folk creature be considered a fairy?
Myths & Legends
Fairies are mythological spirits that inhabited Europe (or still inhabit according to believers). For a more formal definition, here’s Merriam-Webster’s: “a mythical being of folklore and romance usually having diminutive human form and magic powers.” This tracks with the popular image of fairies as little, pretty sprites with butterfly wings who sing songs.
However, those Disney-fied fae aren’t necessarily the fairies of old: the grimdark fairies.
Fairy legends are found all over Europe, but they mainly crop up in French, German, and Scandinavian folklore. In the latter, they’re often called elves, trolls, or more specific names. The cream of the crop for fairy stories, at least the gruesome ones, can be found in the British Isles.
The Irish believe in two fairy courts: the Seelie Court, who comes out at twilight, and the Unseelie Court, who comes out at midnight. Take a wild guess on which one’s comprised of the good fairies, and which one’s made up of evil bastards. Whichever one you guessed, is wrong. 😈
Each court would often travel in processions, or troops. A Seelie Court procession was respected for its beauty, but would often engage the unwary in contests or riddles with dire consequences. Just spying or eavesdropping upon a Seelie court could lure the unprepared away from the mortal realm for countless ages, if they ever returned at all.
An Unseelie procession was feared for good reason for their lack of beauty and malevolent mein. Woe betide any traveler, alone at night, who was whisked away by a mob of unseelie fairies. If they made it out alive, the horrors they experienced were too unspeakable to relive.
Ghastly solitary fairies were also common. Besides the banshee, the wailing woman who foretells death in Scotland and Ireland, another fairy woman would lurk in the woods. A lone woman wandering the wilds is likely to be the most dangerous.
Pronounced Bah-vin Shee, the Baobhan Sith is a beautiful succubus-like fairy in Scottish folklore. Closely related to the vampire and the banshee, she appears in Seanan McGuire’s October Daye series as a true vampire, a vampire who feeds on the blood of their victims; this is opposed to psychic vampires and their ilk who feed on energy, or vampires who don’t need to feed on human blood. If these vampires don’t feed, they become feral, they’ll stop at nothing to capture their next victim and suck them dry!
The bean nighe was another woman you needed to watch for on the road. An old washerwoman, the bean nighe was either a fairy who washed the bloody clothes of men she slayed or men who had died in war. In other retellings, like Brian Froud’s Faeries, she was said to be the ghost of a woman who died in childbirth. This poor soul was fated to wash the clothes of the dead until the day she would have normally died.
If you got close enough, you could tell she wasn’t an ordinary woman because she only had one nostril. But if you got close enough to see that tiny detail, it was too late.
They Mostly Come Out At Night
As I said, not all grimdark fairies are evil. In fact, some can be guardians who protect the mortal realm from darker, more evil forces. That doesn’t mean being protected will be comfortable or fun. This number one self-published bestseller (They Mostly Come Out At Night by Benedict Patrick) takes the concept of fairies as guardians of the forest and spins it into a Brothers-Grimm and Neil Gaiman inspired world full of otherworldly helpers and terrible monsters.
Our protagonists share a prince-and-pauper dynamic. For the prince, we have Adahy, son of the Magpie King who will take his place as protector of the forest one day. And now that the wolves are about to ravage the forest and destroy everyone he’s duty-bound to protect, Adahy must rise up, bear the weight that’s already on his shoulders thanks to his birthright, and try (or fail) to save his people.
Meanwhile, Lonan is an outcast who’s hated by his village. Why? They believe he let the monsters in, decimating a good chunk of the town. His family is dead. His childhood sweetheart hates him, and now Lonan must find a way to win the trust of his village back…and save it from the wolves.
Lonan has an ace up his sleeve. At night, he has dreams that he’s seeing through the eyes of the prince. Does this mean he could have insight to save his village? Can he, through his dreams, help Adahy banish the monsters once and for all?
I loved this read. It was quick, and I loved how it incorporated traditional fairies and how archetypal they can be. Check out the interlude chapters, chock-full of stories the villagers tell their kids. These include tales about the titular Magpie King and they’re enough to satisfy any fan of dark fairy tales.
The Usual Suspects
Can we touch on fairies in grimdark fantasy without going to one of the most obvious examples? The Dresden Files is chock-full of fairies. If I went into the number of fairies in this series, I could write an entire month of newsletters about them.
Since a lot of you have already picked up Dresden, I’m not going to bog you down with a synopsis. I will say this: I love how they honor the variety of fairies in folklore. I also enjoy how they stick to the original beats: fairies are from a supernatural realm called Nevernever (in a lot of older tales, Fairy Land is called Elfland). Nevernever is a perfect name for the fairies, as it highlights the rules-lawyering and weasel words that are found in their contracts and manners of speech.
A completely different, 2,000-year old hero struggled with his own faeries (when he wasn’t pissing off the gods from every pantheon on Earth). Atticus, known by many names including the Iron Druid, spent most of of his two millennia in hiding from faeries. He goes through great lengths to hide from the fae who pursue him.
Even the “good faeries” and gods who rule over the fae that sometimes aid Atticus became sources of antagonism for Atticus. They may never lie, but the truths they tell always get Atticus into even deeper trouble when he gets desperate enough to ask them for help.
My Future Fae?
Will grimdark fairies ever appear in the realm of The Raven Queen? Have they already?
Would you consider the outsiders who threaten her world to be fairies? I call them demons, but in many ways they’re no different from eldritch fae. Could the old gods be considered faeries? I drew some of their inspiration from Celtic and Greek traditions and recordings of human sacrifice for The Raven Queen, Arise. Should be obvious: expect fae mischief in future installments.
Read The Raven Queen, Arise, out now, and ponder whether a tricky fairy, or a bloodthirsty troop, will wreak havoc in my world.