At one point in my WIP Queen Victoria’s Transmogrifer (QVT), the disincarnate entity Sir Ulbrecht (can’t call him a ghost, because he’s not one, exactly) has become allied with fairy folk. He once had a close relationship with a fae1 called Seglinde, and now in his time of need has gained the assistance of her and her kin for an (unspecified) price he will pay in the future. (I don’t mind talking about this here because it’s such a minor byway in the book it does not reveal enough to be a spoiler. Though I suspect Sir Ulbrecht may demand his own story sometime in the future.)
In the interests of discussing world building, I want to mention some of the considerations I had when defining these fae, and also conundrums because of our cultural understandings of this kind of folklore.
The Fae As We Know Them
If I were writing a book in a Celtic setting, or with similar Gaelic or Welsh roots, I could go on at length about the sidhe (pronounced shee), and trust that most well-read readers will understand what I am referring to. If I delve into the older notions of fairy folk, we quickly leave the Disneyfied concept of Tinkerbell behind and come instead to the god-like early inhabitants of Ireland and the realm of the grand heroes of the Welsh Mabinogian and other epic tales of lore.
If I want to wax archaeological and evoke collective memory of a real people who came before recorded history, I may speak of the Tuatha de Danaan, and many readers will think, then, of the people said to live in those lands before the coming of the Celts: people who had the old knowledge and were displaced by newer folk until they became but a memory of magic under hill and in remote woodlands that we retain today.2
Contemporary urban fantasy has not been reluctant to mine this rich vein, with fairy kings and queens, dark and light courts, and sidhe walking among humans a not-uncommon occurrence at all. The parallels with J.R.R. Tolkien’s elves are not to be missed: a people beautiful and fair, tall and commanding, imbued with magic and understanding of nature that surpasses that of men. These sidhe are fair or dark in intentions, and often terrible in their beauty and guile. Today’s urban fantasy resurrects this collective memory of the fae as something awesome. This reframes the diminutive, beneficent-but-often-capricious-mischief-makers of much fairy tale lore, and treats them in a much more imposing manner.
A perfect example of this comes from the prologue of one of Karen Marie Moning’s books. She has made a name for herself in the urban fantasy market, and this description of the fae as she interprets them captures the grandeur and power that lurks (too often forgotten) at the edges of what we blithely define as “fairy”:
“I discovered that…[we were] descended from an ancient Celtic bloodline of sidhe-seers, people who can see the Fae – a terrifying race of otherworldly beings that have lived secretly among us for thousands of years, cloaked in illusions and lies.” (Moning; Fae Fever, Delacorte Press, 2009)
As a native English speaker who grew up with fairy tales, and delved into folklore and myth at a precociously early age, all these implications and more swirl around the word “sidhe”. When I speak of “fairies” I think of some tiny winged thing flitting about the garden. When I speak of the fae-folk, or simply just “fae”, I am speaking of something else entirely. The word “fae” invokes the roots of the word “fairy”, and the concept of “faery” as the land where the fae dwell. “Fae” refers to magical non-humans like the sidhe, but not just the sidhe: a folk who are grand, powerful, innately magical, able and willing to contend with humans when they must, or when they wish.
So now I come to my question, and the thing which prompted world building.
What Are the Fae If They’re Not in Great Britain?
In dealing with Sir Ulbrecht, I’m dealing with a German. The obvious question arises: do they have fae in Germany? Surely the sidhe, as such, are a very Welsh and Irish concept, but it seems to me that the fae, of which they are a representative part, cannot be an idea (or a fact, if that is your reality) limited to this one little corner of the world.
Casting about Europe, and towards Germany in particular: what are the most powerful fairy folk in that cultural setting? Logic and folkloric sense suggest they must have something more than the household imps and ‘wee folk’ which seem common all over Europe. But if Germans have an equivalent of the sidhe or the fae, I was unaware of it.
So off a-googling I went. I have the advantage of being fluent in German, and was able to spend some productive time at Google.de. This quickly showed me that, indeed, central and western Europe also has a tradition of fae. Like us, one end of their spectrum includes small, household-oriented, relatively innocuous (although potentially pesky) sprites and wee folk, “goblins” and related types. It echoes the understanding of “fairies” as nature-related spirits, generally beneficent yet oft-times mischievous, a folk who are invisible at will, who can gift the newborn with talents, and who can remain unseen to everyone but innocent children, who can see them at any time.
But where, here, are the fearsome dark fae that western lore suggests and modern interpretations have strongly established?
The Germanic heritage of the fae, it turns out, is much more cognizant of its connections to not only the early roots of the word, but its implications from the lore of the classical world. “Fae”, we learn, is a variant of the original Latin for Fates (fata): the goddesses who ruled man’s destiny. Quite common in Germanic lore are fae who are closely tied to the fate of a mortal human. They predict your fate; they may help determine it by gifting talents. And, as one source explains,
“The foretelling of fate – or prophecy in general – and spinning are the two fundamental characteristics of the fae.”3
This European lore obviously harkens back to a time when the Fates included those goddesses who spun out the fate of man, as per the mythology of the classical world. Here too is the remembrance of the Germanic and Scandinavian Norns – female beings who rule the fates of gods and men. In later times Norns became associated with weaving the past, present and future, but originally may have been simply focused on the flow of time and a man’s fate within it.
In either case, these concepts of fae do not seem to have carved out quite such a strong niche in common folklore as the versions from more westerly parts of Europe. German lore has plenty of heroes, gods, dwarves, giants, and magic, and a collection of supernatural women (the “white women”, Bechta, sirens, and others) who are often called fae but whose Norn-influenced roots are often seen in their sooth-saying and fate involvement. yet it seems that fairies in the sense of “fae” discussed above are surprisingly scarce. Even the epic collection of folklore made famous by the Brothers Grimm has fae in only a few places, as in the tale of Sleeping Beauty who is both cursed and blessed by fairies.
If we take “elves” to be fairies, the diminutive helpful folk of farm and field became demonized by the Church during the Christianization of Europe, and these entities were cast as evil, mischievous spirits, the “Alb”. That connotation remains in contemporary language, such as the word “Alptraum” (literally, ‘elf dream’) for “nightmare.”5 Germanic fairies are often more grim than merely magical spirits. Like valkyrie, they are often a force for death, such as the erlking (the elf king) who abducts travelers or preys on children.6
“Grim and powerful” is a good place to start, but it is not developed enough. Now, what is an author to do when she needs a sidhe-like depth of field in a land where that is not the dominant tradition? Why, she develops it, of course.
Developing the Fae
I am working with an alternative timeline in QVT, one in which magick is real. The traditions of fae and the supernatural here are more obvious and pronounced than they are in our own timeline. Conveniently for me, German folklore has much in common with Scandinavian and Norse lore, sharing similar cultural roots from tribal times. When we back up and look more broadly at these traditions, and not solely at the subject of fae, it is clear that German folklore contains a supernatural landscape with room in it for complex beings and complex interrelationships. As a brief overview in Wikipedia notes,
As in Scandinavia, when belief in the old gods disappeared, remnants of the mythos persisted: Holda, a “supernatural” patron of spinning; the Lorelei, a dangerous Rhine siren derived from the Nibelung myth; the spirit Berchta (also known as Perchta); the Weisse Frauen, a water spirit said to protect children; the Wild Hunt (in German folklore preceded by an old man, Honest Eckart, who warns others of its approach); the giant Rübezahl; changeling legends; and many more generic entities such as the elf, dwarf, kobold and erlking.
This is actually a pretty well-rounded foundation for my purposes. Combining this with my expanded understanding of Germanic fae, I am able to go in some new directions, and elaborate upon fae that have a more powerful presence in the world of QVT than in our own historical reality.
A helpful starting point here is the “elf king’s daughter”, the Danish precursor to the erlking6 made famous in poem by Goethe, and written about in German poetry and lore as well. This fae is beguiling and cruel, seducing men for her own amusement and quick to take offense if they do not please her or comply with her wishes. Now here is a figure who cuts much more closely to the commanding and alluring sidhe of the western isles.
While in contemporary lore a lot of different nature spirits have been lumped together all under the heading of “fairies”, in QVT I separate them out again, and classify more exclusively as fae only those who bless or curse mortals, who can give talents and gifts, who can foretell and influence a human’s fate. Like the Germanic nature spirits who are their close kin, though, I leave their dwelling places in similar locations: in groves of trees, at bodies of water, or in rocky gorges. Fae like Perchta reward diligence and punish laziness, perhaps even disemboweling the lazy one; this streak of danger is a hallmark of Faery in this setting. Although Honest Eckart may warn of it, the Wild Hunt may still travel the land, destroying the unwary caught in its path. Offended fae may take out their ire upon mortals, or may be strong allies if appeased. The fae are interested in the fate and doings of mortals, and may befriend humans, especially children, but they are a fickle folk and often self-interested, ready and able to punish those who offend them.
From this starting point, I can now see the fae culture and society I need to grow to support the events in my novel.
I’m not going to elaborate on this in any more detail here. Not only would it be spoilers, but I have also written enough of a tome on the subject for one blog post. Nevertheless, I hope this examination of the topic shows some of the concerns I had in researching the lore, identifying the disparities between what I liked in fae, and what was on offer in a certain culture, and how I found a way to reconcile them that makes sense within my alternate history universe.
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1. Fae. See this discussion for etymology of the word.
2. For a good concise overview of the origins of legends of the sidhe, see this interesting page at author Sarah Woodbury’s site. For a wonderful book-length folklore excursion of this and other types of fairy folk, see Wirt Sikes’ 1881 book British Goblins, online free at Google Books.
3. “Eigenschaften der Feen.” (Properties of the Fairies.) Das Reich der Feen (The Realm of the Fae). http://www.feenreich.de/feen/wesen-04.html
4. See discussion of Norns at Wikipedia.
5. “Eigenschaften der Feen.” (“Attributes of the Fae.” ) Das Reich der Feen. http://www.feenreich.de/feen/wesen-04.html
6. “The Erlking.” Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Erlking#cite_ref-Byrne_1-0