My faeries are different. They do not have wings, nor gossamer gowns, nor are they Tolkienesque woodland lords. (I’d always wondered how Elrond and his kin maintained their lifestyle: fine wines, gorgeous clothes, open air palaces, and whatnot. It’s true that you can get a lot done when you don’t have to sleep and live for thousands of years, but still….no visible means of support.) My faeries aren’t the sort that leave deformed infants in your cradle, taking your cute little baby in exchange, either. But they draw upon all of these for their inspiration.
There are so many contradictions in faery lore. They are beautiful, and ugly. They are refined, and coarse. They are helpful, and spiteful. They are mighty warriors and the People of Peace. They are decievers, and you cannot lie in the language of the faeries. They live in palaces, and deep underground in barrows and caves. They shapeshift, sometimes appearing in human form, at other times that of birds or deer.
How, exactly, does a fantasy author, square that circle? How, in the course of building a fictional world, can one incorporate all these contradictions? Or must one simply surrender, adopt one of the established faery tropes, and go on from there?
That would be too easy.
My concept of the faer is grounded in two things: Celtic faerie lore and anthropology. Back in the early days of writing this, my teacher, Ivo Dominguez, Jr., mentioned in an aside during a lecture on faeries, that he suspected that the trooping faeries that cross his land each autumn may well be the energetic remnant of a Native American clan that followed the same path in their annual cycle of migration as various food sources became available or depleted. So I wondered: What if my faer had actual, physical bodies?
A second source for my faer is a recounting I read of a family of renowned Scottish physicians. The first of them was a 17th century farmer who found a young, terrified woman hiding in one of his outbuildings. He took her in, and although she never spoke a word, he eventually married her. She taught him and their sons the creation and use of highly effective herbal remedies, beginning their careers as doctors. I read this two decades or more ago, and have never been able to find it again. (If you know the source, please let me know.)
Still, I thought, if a faerie were able to survive into the 17th century, why not the 12th? And what if they were mute, like the Scottish physician’s bride? And if mute, how did they communicate? And if telepathic, how would our babbling brains affect them? And how would they perceive the world? How would it differ from our perception? How would that affect their value system?
Another building block in my faer is that of the way we humans (or quetan, as they term us, the speaking ones) perceive people different from ourselves. You’ve no doubt heard the phrase. “All them ___ look alike,” applied to people of different ethnic groups from our own. It’s easy for us to differentiate between members of our own kind, to the point where we are astounded to meet someone who “looks like someone we know.”
However, when encountering a group with different physical characteristics, the broader differences overwhelm the individual ones in our sight, leading to that comment above. For a non-human example, Canada geese mate for life. You try telling them apart. Go ahead. I dare you. But evidently they can.
I believe this has deeper implications. If we cannot see individuals, but only the group, we tend to attribute all characteristics, not just the physical, to all members of that group. In addition, every “advanced” civilization thinks itself better that those termed “primitive.” And then there’s the fact that those so-called “primitive” societies have developed skills essential to them, that are unnecessary to those living in the cocoon of civilization. Why bother learning to read the clouds for future weather when you can just speak “Weather Channel” into your remote? To them, voice activated channel changing, not to mention TV itself, is magic. To us, being able to sniff the air and predict the weather accurately, is magic.
As we “civilized” types encounter other races and civilizations, with their skill sets different from ours, I believe that our minds split things in two: there are the “stupid” “savages,” inferior to us because they lack our skills. Meanwhile we concentrate the abilities they have that we lack into the “exceptions:” the Noble Savage, the Spiritual Master, the Warrior Monk, the Magic Negro.
I suspect that we have done the same with the people we term “faeries.” In my novels, I attempt to explore that idea. Faeries, or the faer (in my telling, they find the term “faeries” demeaning, an attempt to diminish them) as an alternate species of human, with different abilities, and a different view of the world.
June 8-10, at Camp Ramblewood, Darlington, MD. See you there!