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Faeries, Elves, & Other Kin

Do You Take Your Faeries With or Without Wings?

Not very long ago, a new reader of my blog wrote me the following:

I have to say that whenever I come across a word that is new to me, such as “Faerie”, I immediately “iconoclast” the current definition I have for it out of respect (which would be in my mind a faerie is “a feminine sprite of metaphysical quality, mischievious [sic] and clad somewhat in pink” with alternate spelling)…

“Clad somewhat in pink.”  That description gave me a good giggle, but he left out wings.  What do you think about faeries with wings?  Are faeries with wings a valid archetype?  If you read book reviews, you’ll find quite a few people think faeries with wings are just so much fluff and aren’t to be taken seriously.  We’ve all heard the derogatory term “fluffy bunnies.” Must we now deal with “fluffy faeries,” too?

People all over the world, since time immemorial, have experienced the fae.  What these beings looked like and how they acted may have varied from culture to culture, but one thing was consistent until the Victorian era:  None possessed wings.  Angels had bird-like wings and demons had bat-like wings, but there were no beings with petal-, leaf-, bee-, moth-, butterfly- or dragonfly-like wings.

So how and why did faeries with wings pop into existence?  Moreover, why are they still flitting about?

In order to answer these questions, let us look back into history and examine the origins of the fae.

Some hypothesize faeries were originally pagan deities (such as the Tuatha De Danann, who were human in appearance and had no wings).  Another theory is that faeries were the souls of the dead (who were, naturally, thus human in appearance and had no wings).  Still others think faeries arose from folk memories of aboriginal races (who were thus also human in appearance and had no wings).  Another speculation is that faeries developed from the ancestral belief in an underworld (and why would creatures that lived underground have the need for flight or wings?).  The best theory, in my opinion, is that faeries originated as spirits of nature (and thus explained unexplainable natural phenomena and could take on any characteristic out of necessity, which includes wings, but didn’t until something required them).

What humans fear or do not understand, they strive to explain as best they can.  Just as the Sumerians, Egyptians, Greeks and Romans had gods, goddesses, heroes and monsters to explain everything from lightning and ocean tempests to why spring always follows winter and how the sun returns each morning; all civilizations have to deal with these same problems and questions.  Why should faeries not be responsible for or play a role in some of life’s difficulties and wonders?  In pre-Victorian ages, European peasantry blamed the fae for many natural “disasters” or else sought them out for their magical powers or abilities.

  • If the milk soured, it wasn’t because someone let the milk get too warm and bacteria started to grow.  No, clearly a boggart was at fault.  Boggarts are dark and hairy, with long yellow teeth.  Boggarts, please note, have no wings.
  • If the bride or groom goes missing before their wedding, it wasn’t because they eloped or one of them changed their mind.  ‘Twas trows who stole one or both of them away.  Trows are squat, misshapen and dress in grey.  Trows do not have wings.
  • If you find yourself lost in familiar territory, it can’t be because you had a wee bit too much to drink or the fog is especially dense and the moon dark.  Why not blame the pixies; you were “pixie-led,” for sure.  Pixies dress all in green and are little, with red hair, pointed ears, turned up noses and short faces.  Alas, pixies do not have wings, either.
  • If your child disappears while playing on the shore of the local lake, you can’t believe it was simply because they fell into the water, and being unable to swim, sadly drowned.  No, a kelpie carried off your wee bairn.  Kelpies appear as harmless grey horses, but once a rider is upon its back, the kelpie runs into the water, where it drowns and eats the rider.  Kelpies are wingless, too.
  • When things are going well and times are easy, it isn’t simply because the weather has been perfect, no armies have plundered your village or farm, no virulent pestilence has ravaged the land, or you’re head-over-heels in love.  Luckily, a brownie has moved into your home and farm to assist in cleaning and tidying up, threshing the grain and churning the milk.  Brownies are small, shaggy-haired and ugly, with flat faces, wrinkled skin, pinhole nostrils, and short brown curly hair (though appearance varies from place to place).  What they all have in common, though, is no wings, no wings at all.

Throughout time, culture and literature, we find wingless fae beings.  Greek heroes took nymphs as faerie wives.  Australian aboriginals say a being called Kutchi appeared as whirls of dust.  In Europe, dust whirls are the sign of a marching faerie army, while in the Middle East, the Djinn were the very dust storms themselves.  The Greeks did have Pegasus and Nike, and the Romans had Cupid, but these were individuals, not an entire winged species.  There are some notable exceptions:  The first is griffins and harpies.  Hesiod describes harpies as bird-women and thus neither of these “monsters” fit into this article’s definition of winged fae, both having feathers like angels.  The second is dragons and gargoyles.  Having leathery wings like bats, these “monsters” also do not fit into this article’s definition of winged fae.  For the greater part, fae entities were anthropomorphic or bestial and got along very well without gossamer wings or fluttering about.

It is my contention that the universal lack of fae with wings until the Victorian age was because there was no need for them, no role for them to play, nothing for their presence to explain.  If we assume these fae have always been here, have people been too busy surviving to notice them or even know of their existence?  If we assume these fae have not always existed, why did people start to see and believe in them?  What happened?

The industrial revolution is what happened, beginning in the late 1700s and culminating by the mid-1800s.  The industrial revolution created the middle class, where before there were just two classes:  the very rich (who had lots of leisure time) and everybody else (who had no leisure time).

With the development of the middle class came a completely new set of conventions and pastimes, a completely new set of freedoms and restrictions, a result of not only a shift in wealth, but also a shift in leisure time.  Whereas fairy tales had once been titillating, salacious and rather bloody amusements for the rich, they were now nicely sanitized morality tales suitable for children, thanks largely to the efforts of the Grimm brothers.  Fairy tales still didn’t contain faeries with wings, but fairy tales and faeries had been firmly relegated to the nursery.

The industrial revolution also sparked an interest in nature as a hobby in the middle class during the Victorian era (1837-1901).  We see this in the elaborate language of flowers developed during this time, as well as the move from the unstructured cottage flower garden to the highly structured formal flower gardens that France and England still enjoy today.

In depicting faeries as spirits of nature (my favorite theory for the origin of faeries), Victorian artists melded together these two enormous social changes.  Faeries began to take on the features of the children, flowers and insects found in the nursery and the formal garden.

We first begin to see a shift in how faeries are viewed when Thomas Croker (1789-1854) describes elves as being “a few inches high, airy and almost transparent in body; so delicate in their form that a dew drop, when they chance to dance on it, trembles, indeed, but never breaks.”  He is a herald for the Victorian era which is about to flower.

In 1904, J.M. Barrie’s play, Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, appears on the stage and is followed-up in novelized form in 1911.  In the novel, Barrie (1860-1937) describes Tinker Bell thus:

It was not really a light; it made this light by flashing about so quickly, but when it came to rest for a second you saw it was a fairy, no longer than your hand, but still growing. It was a girl called Tinker Bell exquisitely gowned in a skeleton leaf, cut low and square, through which her figure could be seen to the best advantage.  She was slightly inclined to embonpoint [be voluptuous].

‘O Tink, did you drink it to save me?’

‘Yes.’

‘But why, Tink?’

Her wings [emphasis added] would scarcely carry her now, but in reply she alighted on his shoulder and gave his chin a loving bite.  She whispered in his ear ‘You silly ass’; and then, tottering to her chamber, lay down on the bed.

Around the same time, Arthur Rackham (1867-1939) began doing black and white line drawings for Faerie Tales of the Brothers Grimm and Gulliver’s Travels (1900), and color plates for Rip Van Winkle and Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (1905 and 1906, respectively).  In 1908, he did 40 color plates and 34 line drawings for Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Despite the fact that there is not a single reference to winged faeries in either Rip Van Winkle, Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, or A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Rackham created captivating illustrations of winged faeries.  Nearly all of Rackham’s winged faeries were beautifully and delicate, even the ones which were insect-like, all spindly and bug-eyed.  He combined his exceptionally detailed butterfly and dragonfly wings with classically flowing gowns and fabrics to create a delightful sense of fluidity and movement.  His faeries conveyed a sense of graceful fun, and his illustrations are still popular today.

While other artists of the time contributed to the image of the winged fae, such as Richard Dadd (1817-1886), John Fitzgerald (1819-1906), Richard Doyle (1824-1883), Lancelot Speed (1860-1931), Warwick Goble (1862–1943), and Edmund Dulac (1882-1953), Rackham’s work forms the basis for much of the winged faerie art of today.  What all of these artists had in common, however, was the ability to imbue their fae subjects with that special quality that imparts the magic and glamour inherent in these child-like faeries.  These tiny, winged fae restore and nourish the sense of wonder and suspension of disbelief we entertained as children.  They help us feel playful and happy, and as Martha Stuart would say, “That’s a good thing.”

For me, no better archetypes than the fae exist that so clearly personify the natural elements and potential of our world and our existence, helping us to understand the cycle of birth, sex, fertility and death.  Wherever there is light, there must dark be also.  In the world of the fae, this rule holds just as true as it does in ours.  Although the graceful little Victorian sprites whose wings shimmer and sparkle, who dance and flutter among the flowers, may be relative newcomers to the scene, their coquettish charm is just as vital to our understanding and appreciation of the ongoing cycle of life as are the more ancient (and rather scary) archetypes.

I’ll take my faeries just as they come, with wings or without.  It’s all good.

    Bibliography and Works Cited/Recommended Reading:
    Barrie, J.M., Peter and Wendy, EBook #26654, The Project Gutenberg, 2008 (www.gutenberg.org)
    Briggs, Katharine, An Encyclopedia of Faeries, Pantheon Books, 1976
    Croker, Thomas Crofton, Faerie Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland, The New Series (Two Volumes in One), Printed for John Murray, London, 1914
    Franklin, Anna, The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Faeries, Paper Tiger, 2004

How Did Faeries Get Their Wings?,” Art Passions Website, 2009

    The Encyclopeadia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, Volume X, The Encyclopeadia Britannica Co., 1910