8 September 2010


Bob Curran. Dark Fairies, (illustrated by Ian Daniels). Career Press/New Page Books, 2010.

Most people in the contemporary western world have a highly romanticised view of fairies, derived in no small part from Disney schmaltz. Fairyland/Magonia is seen as, to use the famous expression of Jacques Vallee, "a place where gentle folks and graceful fairies dance, and lament the coarse world below."
However. as we in Magonia have often argued, and this new book by Ulster folklorist and story teller Dr Bob Curran emphasises, the original fairy beliefs were very different.

The 'fairies' of the traditional folklore were at best ambivalent, at worst downright malevolent creatures or forces. Curran takes on a tour of these: the fairies of the mounds, those of the air, those under the ground, and the takers of children. Though there may be little consensus on what these 'fairies' were, which had many different names in many different lands, there is one on what they were not. They are not the pretty little things with gossamer wings that die when a child says they don't believe in them. Rather they represent the liminal realm between the human world and the world of wild nature, between wildness and culture, between matter and spirit. As liminal creatures they are perceived as belong both to the human and non-human realm. Their humanity can often be seen as misshapen, the broken image of society's outcasts. The changeling represents those whose humanity is seen somehow in question, the mentally, physically or emotionally challenged, already part way other.

As liminal beings these petty supernaturals can be seen as both representative of some older human or quasi-human group, though outside of Indonesia there is little archaeology to back up such a notion; and as demoted gods, symbols of the forces of wild nature, the djinn made out of smokeless fire (which probably derive from lightning flashes and other electrical phenomena associated with desert sandstorms), the brollaghans which symbolise fog and mist, the sluagh, the host of the winter storm.

Reading through this book reminds us that this folklore is not really dead, it is just transmuted into different forms. The fairies who take children have become the stranger abductors of modern legend, those who take adults are the alien abductors of modern UFO lore, which has incorporated almost all the traditions of the old fairy lore, though I have yet to find a story in which greys or their derivatives prophecy the death of a human by wailing outside their window.

Prefigurations of both of these traditions can be found in a story told in late 19th century Sligo. A little boy and girl were playing out in the early evening, it was getting cold and they were just about to go in when a fine coach and horses came towards them at terrific speed. Inside were a grand lady and gentleman; the latter called out to the children saying he had something marvellous for them to see. In answer to the children's questions, they said they were gentry of a sort from beyond the hills,. The woman brought out a wonderful golden ball, saying that there were many wonders like that in their halls, and would they like to come and see them. The little girl went with them and was never seen again, the boy was given the ball, which when he looked had turned into a turnip.

The similarity to modern fears is obvious, and behind it lies some notion of the glamour of the wilderness, the sense that the wild things beyond the human habitat can lore us away into their wilderness to become part of them. Wild nature as the ultimate child abuser.

We can see from some other stories what the fairies might represent. Tired of perhaps too grand a wife Bridget, Michael Cleary uses her illness as excuse to literally dehumanise her as a changeling and burn her to death. The wilderness did possess that household but it was the abuser not the victim surely who was taken over by the inner feral.

To be true to these traditions noted in Curran's book, a modern fairy story would have to replace the old barrows and other traditional sites falling into the wild, with some modern equivalent, perhaps a decaying empty housing estate, with the Dark Fairies of the 21st century being grotesque and broken drug addicts. -- Reviewed by Peter Rogerson.

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