Monday, January 16, 2012

Fairies in literature throughout the years

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Fairies are usually associated with northwestern Europe, especially with the British Isles, but fairylike creatures have appeared in many cultures throughout literature. There are many different types of fairies and they take on many different shapes and forms. For example, fairylike beings such as nymphs and dryads have appeared in classic mythology, the djinn, or genies, have appeared in Arabic lore, and the peri in Persian lore. Throughout the years, because of economic, scientific, and technological developments, writers and artists have helped changed the way readers look at fairy beings.

In the beginning, people believed that fairies roamed freely in forests. People also believed that the fairies were very good friends with them. Fairies were said to have existed in human form, sometimes splendid and sometimes monstrous. Occasionally, fairies assumed the shapes of deer or falcons, flames or flowers or jewels. At times, they were invisible. Although they lived on earth, their realm had many dimensions. Their kingdom, Fairyland, appeared and disappeared in the blink of an eye, in a way that could only disturb humans. Fairyland was a place unlike any other, humans envied it and dreamt of going their.

There are many different myths about how fairies came to be. They are said to have originated to protect the forest from travelers that disrupted it. Fairies were said to have come about to punish thieves and confuse explorers. One of the most talked about fairies throughout literature was Robin Goodfellow, who was sometimes known as Puck. He was known as the merry wanderer of the night, that lured travelers into swamps, pinched lazy housemaids, and pulled stools from beneath gossipers. It was said that humans danced to his seductive piping as trained bears to a circus drum, and that he took pleasure in causing confusion among mortals, whose various follies he was never tired of watching. The water nymphs were also devilish to travelers. They lived deep in the forest upon a woodland spring and played among the rushes and the water lilies. They lured sailors by their beauty and the sailors were never seen or heard from again. Although beautiful, these fairies were soft but strong and deadly cold.

Many years ago, people did not associate fairies as little flying beings but instead as creatures associated with the natural world, such as nature fairies, nymphs and dryads. In the beginning, fairies were used in mythology. Major characters included the Fates, who had control over the destinies of men and sometimes appeared at the birth of a child. They had a connection with destiny, prophecy, and birth. They were sometimes associated with death and Hades in the underworld. Around the time of Homer and Alexander the Great, Greeks and Italians worshiped their dead ancestors and believed that they would become demons or heroes. But the souls that had no resting place would wander the earth, damaging crops, tormenting the living, and bringing diseases and plagues. These spirits have obvious similarities to evil fairies because they would also fly through the air at night and bring harm to animals and human beings.

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The Middle Ages was a fertile period for fairy lore. During this time period, most people believed in supernatural beings such as devils, angels, sprites, and fairies. Although some accounts of fairies by medieval writers represented fairies in a good way, many medieval people feared them, linking them with devils and evil spirits. This attitude was reflected in the trial of Joan of Arc, where she was asked to show if she had had dealings with fairies and whether or not she believed that they were evil spirits. But towards the end of the Middle Ages, people began to involve science with nature and they no longer had strong feelings about fairies as they did before. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, however, writers like William Shakespeare and Michael Drayton gave fairy lore a new look by making them amusing and appealing creatures.

The witchcraft mania in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries intensified the negative image of fairies as devils or friends of Satan. The Puritans in particular condemned fairies and many other spirits as evil beings that wanted to corrupt and destroy people.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a new type of fairy story appeared in the fairy tales of French writers such as Charles Perrault. The principal type of fairy in these tales is the fairy godmother, a fairy being who influences the fate of human beings. The fairy godmother is related to the Fates, who were also associated with birth, destiny, and prophecy. The best known of the fairy godmothers is the one in “Cinderella” from Perrault’s Tales of Mother Goose, a beneficent being who uses magic to help Cinderella. However, the fairies in such tales can be hateful if they are wronged. In “Sleeping Beauty” from the same collection, an old fairy who has not been invited to the baptism of a princess puts a curse on her.

The Age of Reason, the period from the late seventeenth century to the late eighteenth century, was not in general a productive period for fairy teachings. Most people believed that fairies were a product of ignorance and superstition. To believe in fairies went against standard intelligence.

There was a renewal of interest in fairy lore during the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. People once again became interested in fairy lore by a rejection of the Age of Reason with its faith in modernity, industry, and reason. Fairy lore provided a release from the pressures of every day life and of modern society.

The literature dealing with fairies is extensive and varies greatly. Some writers have a special insight in the fairy world and successfully capture the spirit. Shakespeare does so in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, when the Fairy Queen Titania says that the fairies have met in “forest or mead, by paved fountain or by rushy brook, or in the breached margent of the sea, to dance our ringlets to the whistling wind.” (Shakespeare p.4) Most fairy stories deal with relationships between fairies and human beings. Many with the love between a fairy and a human. Some also focus on punishments that fairies give to mortals because they mistreated something in nature. But there are also numerous stories in which the fairies reward mortals for kind treatment or take pity on a person who has suffered unfairly in life.

Ancient Art and architecture bear traces of the fairy tradition. A number of painters in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries made fairies the subject of their works. Henry Fuseli illustrated Titania and Bottom and depicted a fairy-world that is presided over by Titania, the Queen of the Fairies, who conjured up a whirlwind of her elves, sprites, and gnomes to attend to Bottom. In Fuseli’s Titania’s Awakening, another illustration to a Midsummer Night’s Dream, Oberon stands over the sleeping Titania as he prepares to awaken her. Oberon and Titania are shown as majestic figures of human shape, but the painting also includes demons and other nightmarish figures.

Fairy lore has also reached a large audience through films. A Midsummer Night’s Dream was captured in all its magical splendor and performed very well.

During the twentieth and twenty-first century people no longer believe in fairies and fairy lore as they did in the seventeenth century. Even though scholars have contributed greatly to the understanding of fairies and folklore, the general public is less interested in fairy tales and has turned to a new kind of fairy tale. Today, fairy tales have a totally new meaning and are very different from those of the centuries that have past, they are exciting and daunting, yet convey a very meaningful message as they did before. In general, fairy lore is looked at in a very different perspective. Writers like Tolken and Briggs have breathed new life into fairy lore. In addition, many people today have found enduring values in old beliefs. The continuing interest in fairy beliefs simply says that fairy lore will continue to refresh the spirit and trigger the imagination for centuries to come. Arrowamith, Nancy. A Field Guide to Little People. New York Pocket Books, 178.

Briggs, Katherine. An Encyclopedia of Fairies Hobgoblins, Brownies, Bogies, and Other

Supernatural Creatures. New York Pantheon, 176.

Cavendish, Richard. Man, Myth and Magic. New York Marshall Cavendish, 18.

Curtin, Jeremiah. Tales of Fairies and of the Ghost World. New York Blom Press, 171.

Dubois, Pierre. The Great Encyclopedia of Fairies. Ohio Simon & Schuster, 1.

Edwards, Gilian. Hodgoblin and Sweet Puck Fairy Names and Natures. England Geoffrey Bles, 174.

Phillpotts, Beatrice. The Book of Fairies. New York Ballantine Books, 17.

Shakespeare, William. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Iowa Perfection Learning Corporation, 187.

Spince, Lewis. The Enchanted World Fairies and Elves. Virginia Time-Life Books, 184.

South, Malcom. Mythical and Fabulous Creatures. Connecticut Greenwood Press, 187.

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