Faeries: How Icelanders are Different from You and Me

Posted by:
Susan Rooke
May 30, 2017

Well. Maybe they’re not so different from me. I believe in faeries too.

You may have read that opinion polls show that more than half the people in Iceland either believe outright in “the hidden folk”—elves, faeries, trolls and the like—or at least won’t deny the possibility of their existence. What a great place that must be, that people can hold such beliefs and still feel part of the larger whole, without fearing ostracism and ridicule from their countrymen. (Presumably.) Even though many people in Iceland speak English, I’d love it if The Space Between and the books to follow were translated into Icelandic someday.

(A side note I just learned online: Icelandic is a language closely related to Norwegian, but there’s evidence of Celtic influence in ancient Icelandic literature. Interesting, since, historically, Celts are known for a belief in the supernatural. Here’s a side note I already knew: I have lots of Celt ancestors.)

I’m going to dance feyly out on a limb and guess that most of you aren’t on the Icelanders’ team and might even be a bit amused at their credulity. You don’t believe in faeries or any of the rest of the hidden folk. I understand; it’s a bit of a stretch, for sure. And what do we really mean when we say “faeries,” anyway?

Too often nowadays we mean cutesy little creatures that became fashionable 150 years or more ago. I don’t know precisely how that image of faeries gained public favor (I suspect it had something to do with little Victorian girls), but once it did, it spread. Disney didn’t invent it; he and his friend Tinker Bell (whom he also didn’t invent. J.M. Barrie did that in Peter Pan) only perpetuated the idea.

Then too, there were the Cottingley faeries, photographed by two young girls near the end of World War I and coming to public attention around 1920. What a stir those five photos caused! It lasted for years, too. A shame the Cottingley faeries turned out to be a bit . . . two-dimensional. As in, paper cutouts. Since there are copyright claims over those photos even today, I’ll just put a link to them here. (An interesting article accompanies them.) As you can see, the Cottingley faeries are the small, butterfly-winged and flowing garment-draped type of faery, going about their ethereal little faery lives. Boo to that, I say.

So, thanks to popular culture, faeries have acquired a twinky rep. My mission is to help change that perception back to the way faeries really are. But the first thing I have to do is own it.

I write books about faeries.

There. I’ve said it. You have no idea how long it’s taken me to get to this point. I might believe in them myself, but I know most people don’t, and even find the whole idea a little silly. When I talk about what I do, almost invariably I see my listener’s facial expression change from mild interest to utter condescension. Their lips purse, but they’re usually too polite to scoff outright. The pitying scorn is in their eyes, though, and it never fails to make me cringe a little inside. Because I know what they’re thinking. They’re thinking Tinker Bell. None of us can help that. It’s our conditioning.

But forget Tinker Bell, and forget your great-great-grandmother’s faeries. These aren’t itsy, luminous creatures flitting through the hollyhocks on gossamer wings. Faeries didn’t usually have wings in folkloric tradition. That’s another innovation that grew common in the Victorian era. These faeries can be vengeful, helpful, vicious, vain, humble, mischievous, obstreperous, kind, cruel, or downright malevolent. Yes, some are tiny, but many more are not.

As a character in The Space Between tells Mellis, “There are many different kinds of faeries, just as there were many kinds of angels. Some faeries are quite wicked, though none compare with the Evil Fallen. But many are not bad, and most are content with their lot. They have adjusted to their situation over time. It helps that they see themselves as vastly superior to the rest of the life forms on earth. By some measures they are. Their lives are many times longer than humans’, although they are not immortal. They see the past, present and future more clearly. Some forms of magic come easily to them.”

What makes me think I know these things? As I wrote in “When Fictional Characters Come to Life” (March 9th), my characters have shown themselves to me in dreams. They’ve spoken to me; they’ve named themselves. Often I feel as if their stories are out of my hands.

Is it essential that writers of fantasy (or of any sort of fiction, for that matter) buy into the worlds they create? No, but I think it helps those worlds come alive for the reader. In my case, though, I didn’t have to make that leap of faith toward belief. I was already there.

I don’t make this stuff up. I just write what they tell me to.

*clears throat*

So . . . um . . . [awkward pause] . . . I hear Iceland’s supposed to be really nice this time of year . . .

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