by Terri Windling
During the middle years of the 20th century, the fairies seemed to go underground, rarely leaving the Twilight Realm to interact with the world of men — except to appear in sugar–sweet guise in children’s books and Disney cartoons. One could find them if one looked hard enough — in Ireland, for instance, in the fiction of James Stephens and Lord Dunsany. But in general, it was not until an Oxford don named J.R.R. Tolkien wrote about elves in a place called Middle–Earth that fairies came back to popular art in any numbers.And then they came with a vengeance.
Professor Tolkien was a scholar of folklore, myth, and Old English literature, so when he created the elves of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, he knew what he was doing. Although written and published some years earlier, it was not until the 1970s that Tolkien’s books dominated the bestsellers lists and became part of British and American popular culture. This in turn created an enormous interest in all things magical, wondrous, and fey. Suddenly there were fairies, dragons, unicorns, mermaids, and wizards everywhere. People started seeking out folklore texts,and teaching themselves to speak Elvish. "What is the reason for this preoccupation?" asked Alison Lurie in an article for the New York Review of Books. "Possibly it is a bi–product of the overly material and commercial world we live in: the result of an imaginatively deprived childhood." (11)
Lurie believed that the reason college students were embracing Tolkien and folklore with such passion was that they’d been raised on the thin gruel on television and Disney films, instead of the great classics of children’s literature. Having been imaginatively deprived in youth, she argued, they had taken now "possession of a fantasy world that should have been theirs at eight or ten, with the intellectual enthusiasm, the romantic eagerness — and the purchasing power — of eighteen and twenty." While this was undoubtedly true of some readers, I find it an unsatisfactory explanation overall, for there were many other readers (and I was among them)who had read classic children’s literature when young and had embraced classic fantasy worlds at ages eight and ten. What Tolkien did was to prove to us that we needn’t give up these worlds at age eighteen — or at twenty–eight or forty–eight for that matter. Back in the 1970s, this was a radical notion. Tolkien dismissed the post–Victorian idea that fantasy was fit only for children, and reached back to an older adult fantasy tradition running from Beowulf to William Morris. He opened a door to Fäerie, and readers discovered this door was not child–sized after all, but tall and wide, leading to lands one could spend a life–time wandering in.
In the mid–70s, another book lured adult readers into the Twilight Realm. This was Faeries, an international bestseller by the British artists Alan Lee and Brian Froud — a sequel, of sorts, to a book called Gnomes by the Dutch artist Wil Huygen. But whereas Gnomes depicted cheerful little creatures who had little in common with the dour, clever, metal–working gnomes of the European folk tradition, Faeries was deeply rooted in traditional fairy lore. Here, in all their beautiful, horrible glory were the fairies of old British legends: gorgeous and grotesque (often at the same time), creatures of ivy, oak, and stone, born out of the British landscape, as potent and wild as a force of nature. Lee and Froud had taken inspiration from Victorian Fairy Art and updated the tradition for a new generation.Faeries, in turn, would go on to inspire young artists in the years ahead — indeed, it’s rare to find fairy art today (or fairies in film, or fairy fiction) that doesn’t owe a debt, to some degree, to this influential book.
From the mid–70s onward, numerous other books on fairy lore appeared, including several "field guides," and the peerless folklore studies of Katherine Briggs. In fiction, the great success of The Lord of the Rings helped to establish an entire new publishing genre of fantasy fiction for adult readers; and as a result, a new generation of writers turned to folklore and myth for inspiration — in North America as well as in England. (12) Fairies found their way into a number of their books, some of which were set in days gone past or in the land of Fäerie, and some of which were urban tales of fairies in the modern world. John Crowley, for example, in his brilliant novel Little, Big, draws on a host of Victorian ideas about the fairies to create a modern fairy tale set in rural and urban New York.Susanna Clarke’s best–selling Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is a fairy story as might be told by Anthony Trollope or Jane Austen — a wonderful tale of an English history that never was. Ellen Kushner’s award–winning Thomas the Rhymer follows a figure from an old Scottish ballad into the halls of the Fairy Queen. Patricia A. McKillip’s lyrical Winter Rose takes a slant–wise look at the ballad of Tam Lin, as does Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin and Diana Wynne Jones’ Fire and Hemlock.
Lisa Goldstein’s Strange Devices of the Sun and Moon finds fairies among the playwrights of Elizabethan London, while Poul Andersen’s A Midsummer Tempest and Sara A. Hoyt’s Ill Met by Moonlight revisit the fairies of William Shakespeare. Emma Bull’s ground–breaking War for the Oaks brings fairies to the 1980s Minneapolis music scene, and Charles de Lint’s Widdershins pits immigrant fairies against the native spirits of the Canadian wilderness. Holly Black’s Tithe discovers a fairy changeling living on the Jersey shore, Delia Sherman’s Changeling spies them in the shadows of Manhattan, and Midori Snyder’s Hannah’s Garden finds a fairy fiddler in an Irish bar in the Midwest.These are just a few of the many fine fairy novels available in the fantasy genre. Outside the genre, Kevin Brockmeier makes use of English fairy lore in his novel The Truth About Celia; changeling legends provide inspiration for Alice Thomas Ellis’ A Fairy Tale and Keith Donohue’s The Stolen Child; and Sylvia Townsend Warner’s wry fairy stories (originally published in The New Yorker magazine) can be found in Kingdoms of Elfin. Numerous works of children’s fiction have also been inspired by the fairies, such as The Moorchild by Eloise McGraw, The Folk Keeper by Franny Billingsley, The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope, and The Faery Flag by Jane Yolen, all highly recommended. (See the longer list at the end of this article for further recommendations.)
In visual art, the English painter Brian Froud has been exploring Fäerie for over twenty–five years, beginning with the publication of Faeries and continuing on through more recent publications such as Good Faeries/Bad Faeries, Lady Cottington’s Fairy Album, and The Runes of Elfland. As a result, he’s probably the best known "fairy artist" in the world today. Wendy Froud is a sculptor who creates faeries with a Pre–Raphaelite touch. Her distinctive work has been photographed and published in The Art of Wendy Froud, as well as in three children’s books: A Midsummer Night’s Faery Tale, The Winter Child,and The Faeries of Spring Cottage. The Japanese painter Yoshitaka Amano gives a unique interpretation of British and Japanese folklore in his beautiful art collection Fairies which includes an essay by Kimie Imura expoloring differences between the Western and Eastern traditions. Charles Vess has depicted fairy imagery in illustrated books and comics, most notably in Stardust, created in collaboration with writer Neil Gaiman, in The Book of Ballads, and in his illustrations for Susanna Clarke’s The Ladies of Grace Adieu. Painter Ernie Sandidge has used fairy imagery to explore themes of sexual fantasy and modern culture’s obsession with youth; his paintings in this vein were exhibitedin "I Was Dumped by a Fairy" (New York City, 2006). Among the illustrators who are following in the footsteps of Rackham and Dulac to paint fairy pictures for children today are Tony DiTerlizzi,Michael Hague, Iain McCaig, P.A. Lewis, Gary Lippincott, Larry MacDougall, Lauren Mills, and Ruth Sanderson. Suza Scalora has published books of "fairy photographs" (The Fairies and The Witches and Wizards of Oberin), andAmy Brown paints wide–eyed fairies phenomenally popular among adolescent girls (The Art of Amy Brown).
The revival of interest in Victorian fairy art led to an important traveling exhibition curated by The University of Iowa and the Royal Academy of London in 1997. In 2002, Abbaye Daoulas in Brittany presented an extensive exhibition of fairy art, beginning with 12th century manuscripts right up to the present day. I recommend the following related art books: Victorian Fairy Painting, with text by Jeremy Maas and others; Fairies in Victorian Art by Christopher Wood; and Fées, elfes, dragons, and autres créatures des royaumes de féerie (Fairies, elves, dragons, and other creatures of the fairy realm), edited by Michel Le Bris and Claudine Glot.
In film, fairies are the subject of two movies inspired by the Cottingley photographs: A Fairy Tale and Photographing Fairies (based on the novel by Steven Szilagyi). Fairies are also at the heart of Stardust, a forthcoming film based on the illustrated book by Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess.Fairy–type creatures can also be found in two children’s films by Jim Henson, The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, both of them designed by Brian Froud. "Fairy fashions" have appear in New York shop windows, on Paris runways, at British music festivals (where pixie ears and Amy Brown–style fashions are ubiquitous these days), and in an illustrated book: Fairie–ality: The Fashion Collection from the House of Ellwand by David Ellwand, Eugenie Bird, and David Downton. Fairy ballads from the British Isles, Brittany, and Scandinavia have been recorded by many folk bands and musicians such as Steeleye Span, Pentangle, Fairport Convention, Kornog, Martin Carthy, Robin Williamson, Solas, Connemarra, Garmarna, Kerstin Blodig, and Loreena McKennitt. Elizabeth Jane Baldry has recorded Victorian fairy music for the harp on Harp of Wild and Dreamlike Strain, and Aine Minogue’s The Twilight Realm is a lovely CD of music inspired by traditional fairy lore. (Both of these are highly recommended.) The fairies have also appeared in pop music, in songs by musicians and bands as diverse as Donovan, Queen, The Waterboys, and Tori Amos.