Home > Fandom > Serve Your Fairies Golden Brown

Serve Your Fairies Golden Brown

Here’s a little suggestion I have for writers of fantasy and horror: fairies should be terrifying.

They are not your friends.  They will not whisk you away to a wondrous magical land where you’ll never grow old and you can play happily in golden fields and under the lollipop trees for eternity.  What they’re more likely to do is snatch you away to a horrifying, twisted nightmare realm where the flow of time and the continuity of space are utterly subjective.

There’s been a trend lately, you see, to put the Grimm back into fairy tales and I’m all for it, to tell you the truth.  Why?  Because it makes for much better stories.

Let’s face it.  Stories are much more interesting when the main character suffers torment.  Fairy creatures can potentially represent as much torment as you could ever need.  These are beings with completely alien mindsets who act largely on whim.  They’re pretty much madness incarnate.

Dark fairy creatures make some of the best antagonists.  This is why so many people have been showing an interest in the versions of fairy tales that were told by the Brothers Grimm.  For all its cheese, this is why the movie Labyrinth worked as well as it did.  This is why I keep hearing so many people are applauding the new version of White Wolf’s Changeling RPG and saying that it’s superior in presentation to the iteration that came before it.  This is also why Jennifer Hudock’s podcast novel Goblin Market is getting such good word-of-mouth.

Dark fairy creatures are awesome.

Of course, this is something people knew long before the Brothers Grimm came around.  Shakespeare presented King Oberon and Queen Titania as forces of nature that are quite content to meddle in human affairs – and in some cases transform them partially into donkeys.  The old Celtic and Germanic fairy tales had a plethora of tiny magical folk – and indeed, larger magical folk – who were anything but benevolent.  You really don’t have to dig very deep to find references to fairy creatures with less than pure intentions.  Even the Wikipedia article on fairies makes a nice jumping-off point.

The reason these kinds of beings make good antagonists is that they can instantly (and for the writer, conveniently) embody all manner of psychological trauma.  A.N. Wilson posited an interesting thought in the UK’s Daily Mail – the idea that the original purpose of fairy tales was to help children understand the kinds of fearsome things they may have to face in life.  Not actual child-eating crones or anthropomorphic wolf-men, necessarily, but complex interpersonal situations with strangers, friends and families – especially families of the dysfunctional variety.  When it comes down to it, some people are crazy and some are downright bastards.  Fairy creatures have a level of mutability that lets them very neatly personify the kind of distress anyone might suffer when being forced to deal with the issues of those individuals.

Need a horrifying, murderous glutton?  Hire a redcap.  Want a massive, thuggish bully?  Ogres and trolls both do well in a pinch.  Want to show how a passion to tinker with things can lead to massive destruction?  Just snatch up half a dozen goblins, wind them up and watch them go.  If you use fairy creatures in a story then the darker and more twisted they are, the more interesting and significant the tale can be.  The results rarely fail to please.

Click below if you’d like to hear me read the article:


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  1. December 5, 2009 at 11:26 pm

    I don’t know that they need to be dark and horrfying, but they should certainly not be all sweet and light. I preferred Robert Weinberg’s A Modern Magician in that some fairy creatures were good, some were evil, but most were morally ambiguous and could identify with either at will. That made for some very interesting characters.
    Thanks for a great post.

    • December 6, 2009 at 8:49 am

      Thanks for responding! I agree that in the cases of fiction that gets into the specifics of “fey politics” or whatnot — or indeed any fiction in which you want to have fairy creatures as protagonists or in support of the protagonists (or even neutral for that matter) — it can be good to have fairy creatures that cover the whole spectrum. In stories in which they’re meant to be antagonistic, though, they can be a truly awesome resource, and certainly much more than the mere annoyances some plot lines occasionally try to make them out to be.

  2. December 6, 2009 at 2:15 pm

    Yes! I think making faeries all cute and sugary sweet is just wrong. Even in stories designed for children, they should at least be tricky and mischievous. They don’t just grant wishes when you catch them, they make you pay. Sometimes it is a price all too horrible,and you wind up wishing you’d never wished at all. Holly Black’s YA novel trilogy, The Modern Faerie Tales, really capture this essence, shedding light into the dark, manipulative side of the underground, and I’d love to see more authors take this approach with faeries. Loved this article.

    • December 7, 2009 at 8:21 pm

      Thanks!! Yeah, the ones who grant wishes can be particularly nasty. They’re a very good example of the way people can sabotage themselves and end up having their secret desires become twisted and painful. There’s ALWAYS a loophole! 🙂

  3. February 11, 2010 at 4:19 pm

    Interesting article.
    In one sense, I do believe that fairy tales were meant to teach children.
    Have you seen Shadow n essence? http://www.shadownessence.com/forum/index.php?showforum=32 I think you’d enjoy it.


    • February 14, 2010 at 6:49 pm

      No, I hadn’t seen that. I’ll dig through it when I’ve got some time. Thanks for the link! 🙂

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