Beware the red cap!
Maybe it’s all the commercials with not-so-bright Christmas elves (sometimes annoyingly so), but lately, I’ve had faeries on the brain. And, being me, that makes me think of how they’re used in books and how different authors have very different takes on fairy folklore.
Have you ever listed all the books you’ve read that used old fairy folklore as inspiration? Well, don’t start unless you have a lot of time on your hands. It’s kind of amazing, actually. So many authors have made the old stories their own, and so many of those takes have become commonly used that it’s hard to recognize the inspiration anymore (like elves, for instance).
Of course, that’s one of the best parts of using fairy folklore as inspiration for writing. To quote myself (which feels a little weird, TBH – not being a narcissist):
“…there is simply so much fodder that 5 authors could use the same faeries as inspiration and get 5 very different worlds, characters, and stories out of it. Make that 5,000 authors…”
Well, I’m not listing 5,000 (I don’t have that kind of time), but here are 10 very different takes on fairy folklore.
10 versions of fairy folklore
Let’s start with the obvious.
While faeries as trouble-makers is well documented in the old Celtic and English tales (especially Robin Goodfellow), Shakespeare’s take humanizes the faeries and their court. They have petty squabbles (like the human court), honor human events, have pity on unrequited love, and make mistakes.
They’re not impossibly powerful beings with no souls who thrive on human suffering or are immune to the plights of their human victims (as they’re portrayed in many older works). Of course, they’re still fairly petty and impetuous, but that’s human, too.
Speaking of petty, impetuous faeries, Tinker Bell is perhaps one of the most famous fairies today thanks to the Disney version of Peter Pan. To me, Tinker Bell is a perfect example of the trend to make faeries slightly more capricious than the average human. They feel enough emotion for us to empathize with them, but they’re a bit flighty and easily angered.
Her Disney incarnation may also be the reason the image of fairies as being tiny, winged beings is so popular today.
3. The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
Speaking of popular images, let’s talk about elves, shall we?
The elves of early fantasy stories, including Tolkien’s, are widely accepted as coming from old Norse folklore. Tolkien made some adjustments to fit his storyline and world, emphasizing the knowledge that would come with longevity (we hope). His elves feel emotion, but they put higher stock in logic than the highly emotional Tink.
The popularity of his stories has made the long-lived, sometimes-too-obscurely knowledgeable elf a role in every “traditional” fantasy novel since. To the point where few could name the origin – or did you already know they came from Norse mythology? (I didn’t…)
The fun thing about this Discworld book is that it combines traditional impressions of scary faeries (renamed, like Jenny Greenteeth) with a completely untraditional type of fae called a Nac Mac Feegle (If you haven’t read this, and you like silliness at all in fantasy, I highly recommend it!). The traditional faeries steal people, live forever, are very dangerous, and like illusions (the usual).
The Nac Mac Feegles drink, curse, fight, and get intimidated by books, lawyers, and witchy 9 year olds (srsly, read it).
If you’re familiar with stereotypes of Scottish Highlanders (see Braveheart), then you’ll realize that Pratchett more or less took that stereotype and applied it to the old idea of the brownies. By combining two very different things, he made something new and wildly entertaining.
5. Ile-Rien books by Martha Wells
In the Ile-Rien books like Element of Fire and The Wizard Hunters, Martha Wells combines elements of alchemy, magic, faeries, and technology. She uses many of the traditional fae ideas like the Seelie and Unseelie Courts, redcaps, elf-shot, and glamour, but the uniqueness of her world and the way the fae interact with it refreshes them, as well.
The elf-shot is a specific kind of attack that the fae are impervious to (rather than simply an elf’s arrow). Glamour is an innate magical ability that fae can use but that doesn’t work against other fae – or humans who’ve been given a gift to see through it. Red caps are dangerous but not very bright, and even faerie circles get a new lot on life.
By leaving aspects of the original folklore, Wells gives a feeling of realism and history to the books, but by interweaving them with specific differences, it’s more than enough to hold the reader’s interest and feel different from the traditional stories.
MacDonald’s interpretation of goblins suits the modern approach to children stories: scary but not too scary. While the original goblins were much more dangerous and impervious to human tricks (if not human gold and jewels), the weaknesses of MacDonald’s goblins make them much more manageable – even comical.
Here’s a hint: if you ever encounter goblins from this book, sing, get into the sun, and stomp on their feet. Not your typical grotesque and murderously greedy goblins, right?
So we’ve confirmed that goblins have long been portrayed as grotesque little creatures that are greedy for gold and jewels – but bankers? I’d say that’s an interestingly modern twist on an old character.
Rowling also gives her own take on many other creatures from mythology and folklore. Like centaurs who are ruled by astrology and talk in riddles, a cerberus (A.K.A. Fluffy), and, of course, house elves.
Like Pratchett’s Nac Mac Feegles, the house elf idea traces back to brownies, but again, Rowling gives them some new characteristics. The original brownies would leave a house if mistreated or if the food they were given was called payment for their work. They didn’t take orders, and they only worked at night and unseen. Rowling’s house elves, on the other hand, served a person or family, took orders (to the point of being unable to do certain magic without permission), and could have clothing without being freed.
Those differences not only make them new and interesting characters but also lead to interesting plot conflicts (like freeing Dobby, Winky’s drunkenness, and Hermione’s liberation movement).
The entire Five Hundred Kingdoms series is about new versions of old fairy tales and folklore. In fact, the kingdoms are ruled by a magical power called the Tradition that tries to forces characters into established roles (a creative idea that makes myriad opportunities for conflict). So a seventh son or a young girl with a stepmother and two stepsisters might have to struggle to get out of a predictable pattern.
But what’s that got to do with faeries? Well, other than the typical fairy tale types (like witches, fairy godmothers, etc.), there are brownies who work for the fairy godmother. They do all the domestic magic like their predecessors, but they’re rather vocal and full-fledged characters rather than shadowy beings that only come work at night.
As the characters travel or the book changes, they also encounter faeries from many different cultures such as Russian rusalkas and bannik as well as the more traditional fantasy elves. The overtness of the world’s use of fairy tales is extremely interesting from a writing perspective since it uses the fairytales as stereotypes established by the Tradition and then explores how more realistic characters react to being stuck in those roles. I’ve never read any approach that’s quite like it (although I’m always ready to learn…).
Even though Lackey’s Elemental Masters series uses many of the same types of fae and folklore, the tone and world is vastly different. This series is set in historic England (usually) but the historic aspects are overlaid with a magical world where humans can control specific elements – and the creatures attached to that element.
Here, different beings from folklore are assignment elemental affiliations (like red caps and Robin Goodfellow), but we most often see ones that were always considered more one element than another. Gnomes are from the earth, salamanders are from fire, undines are from water, and Sylphs are from air.
These stories are also loosely based off the framework from old fairytales, but the modern settings, stronger female leads, and addition of elemental magic make them vastly different form the originals.
Last but not least, we have elves racing cars in the U.S. of A. The main fae link is the Seelie and Unseelie Courts and how they have survived and adapted to modern times. Parts of the old stories like sensitivity to cold iron and underhill remain, but they have evolved rather like old traditions evolve in a new setting.
Other areas’ folklore and elemental creatures occasionally pop up here, as well; however, with storylines more like a modern mystery/crime story, there’s a very different flavor than her stories based deliberately off of fairytales.
In other words, it’s by the same author, but the take on fairy folklore is different.
That’s really why I threw in the last 3 – not to push 1 author, but to emphasize how 1 author can use the same inspiration in many different ways (in fact, that author has several other series that could be thrown in, as well.). I easily could’ve done 2 more authors instead – or 20 more authors. Or 200. There are that many variations on faeries (not even counting the spelling!).
Like I said before, folklore is so rich with opportunity that any author could pick up the same old tale and turn it into a different novel. It’s Changeling versus Tinker Bell. Seriously, use life as inspiration, and the opportunities are endless – you just have to look for them.