One doesn't have to know me terribly well, to know I have a soft spot for fairies. I could write about why another time, but sufficeth to say, I have one. If you've been reading a long time, and REALLY been paying attention, you may also remember that my book arch nemesis, the book that I've never been able to conquer is Edmund Spenser's 'The Faerie Queene'. Well, all this converged at the beginning of this month when I was thinking of what I could do in terms of reading this year. For the last few years, I've picked an author and read at least a broad swath of their most famous works, to really get to know them, as I did with James Joyce a few years ago. So this year I decided to try something a little different - instead of reading one author's many books, I'm going to work my way up to reading the Faerie Queene, later this year.
So, this coincided nicely with Ms Allie at A Literary Odyssey, who decided this month to have a Shakespeare Reading Month. Spenser and Shakespeare were near contemporaries, and both of them have some rather famous forays into fairyland. More importantly, the writers of Shakespeare and Spenser's time, in many ways, began to invent the idea of fairies that we have today. The Elizabethan fairy is both familiar and foreign to our modern idea of fairy-folk.
This is not to say, of course, that Shakespeare and his contemporaries just cut the idea of the Fairy from whole cloth. It seems, in fact, to be a feature of the human drive to mythologize something that is classifiable as a fairy, and we see incarnations of the 'Wee Folk' throughout the folk traditions of many world cultures. In Shakespeare's day, in fact, this line was far hazier than it is now, when we think of a fairy as a very specific type of being (with wings and sparkles and flower petal clothing - its alright, we can all confess together, its true, that's what we all think of, right?). In Shakespeare's most famous exploration of the fey world, "Midsummer's Night Dream", this is actually fairly apparent, fairly quickly - while we often forget this, now, the setting for MND is Athens, the lord of the city is the Greek mythological hero Theseus, and his lady is Hippolyta, the Queen of the Amazons. The setting and characters, then, hearken back fairly strongly to a classical tradition. Mab and Oberon, even, are character-wise really not a far leap from the Greek Gods, if one thinks about it, and the role of Puck as the messenger of the King is a fairly close parallel to Hermes/Mercury. At the same time, the action takes place in a wood, the sort of wild place that the Greeks would have populated with Nymphs and Dryads.
This sylvan divine aspect of the fairies is repeated again in the other of Shakespeare's plays that grapples, though very differently, with the faeries: The Merry Wives of Windsor. MWW is set in England, so the strong classical allusions of the MND fairies is lacking, here, but there is still a strong thread of connection to lost and ancient gods, as the wives trick Falstaff into dressing as a stag and going into the forest, to meet them - then proceed to dress some of the people of the town as fairies to come and torment him. The Horned Man, or the Horned God, is an old remnant of the pre-Christian past of Western Europe (one that lives on today in many varieties, for instance, of neo-pagan faiths). The connection with fairies, here points to their position as fallen Gods of a sort. There's further evidence of this in the name of Queen Mab, in the (in)famous 'Queen Mab' speech that Mercutio offers up in Romeo and Juliet. Mab is probably derived from the Celtic Medb, or as its often transliterated, Maeve, the name of one of the great queens of the Tuatha de Danaan, the 'Gods and Fighting Men' of the Irish/Celtic mythological cycle.
The fairies, then, in England were not terrifically different from Gods - albeit fallen ones, now subservient to the power of Christianity. Many of the fairy stories we have, with a bit tweaking, ore almost indistinguishable from the mythological tales of the Gods of the Celts, the Scandinavians, or the Greeks, with many of the same tropes: descent into the underworld, rewards for virtue and punishment for vice, seduction of mortals by the immortals, rites of appeasement and sacrifice, etc.
But the question, of course, comes up - we DON'T think of the fairies now as being like Gods, really, whatsoever, short of a somewhat shaky connection to immortality, and a certain degree of magical power. Fairies, in most of our modern ideas, do not live lives bigger than human lives, but rather paradoxically, smaller - literally as well as figuratively. The Elizabethan Age is when you begin to see this shift, from fairies as simply strange, unknowable semi-divines, to fairies as amusing, petty imitation of human life. One of Shakespeare's contemporaries, Michael Drayton, wrote a narrative poem on this subject, entitled 'Nimphidia' (another interesting parallel to Greek myth), the outlines of which could live quite comfortably in the pages of Peter Pan, The Water Babies, or a Tinkerbell cartoon. In Nimphidia, the fairies are so small that ride in spacious coaches made of snail shells, pulled by gnats or flies:
The seat the soft wool of the bee,
The cover, gallantly to see,
The wing of a pied butterflee ;
I trow 't was simple trimming.