After rereading The Perilous Gard last week, fairy stories of all sorts were on my mind. I love reading about them, but, well, should I enjoy it? How good are fairies, anyway? The answer is, not particularly—at least by human standards—but that’s not necessarily a bad thing from a storytelling perspective.
One of the biggest problems in fairy stories is the fae’s disregard for bodily autonomy. Fairies are terrible about respecting people’s rights to their own bodies. The kelpie in Holly Black’s Tithe is desperate to eat people, and seduces them into its clutches using pretty magical words to sway their minds. In many stories, simply eating fairy food is as damning as Persephone’s pomegranate seeds—once you partake, there’s no leaving the fae’s land. There is a way this disregard of consent can be turned on the fae, though; in general, if you know a fairy’s full or true name, you can use that to make them do your bidding. It’s not a nice or fair option, but it does exist. In Kiersten White’s Paranormalcy, the organization tasked with controlling supernatural creatures has an uneasy accord with the fae, and agents use fairies’ true names to travel using the fae’s mysterious pathways. There’s still space for abuse on this side; anyone who knows a fairy’s true name can abuse that power, and so their names are closely guarded, but it doesn’t mean it never happens.
Tied into this disregard is the concept of changelings. From Tithe to Supernatural, fantasy stories are rife with tales of creatures who kidnap human children and replace them with uncanny substitutes. In some stories, the substitute is an actual fairy; in others, it’s something like a bundle of logs. As long as the fairies are giving something in return for what they took, there’s no reason for them to feel guilty about the taking. This also crops up in stories where the fae kidnap children whose guardians wish they’d be taken, like in Labyrinth or The Perilous Gard; the fae aren’t doing anything wrong, per sé—they’re just fulfilling the letter of the wish that the child’s guardian has made. They don’t feel bad, and in fact are often confused when humans try to explain that no, they didn’t really want the goblins to take their brother away.
Another problem with fairies is, yet again, somewhat connected to the first: they can be really paternalistic. Maybe it’s due to their long lifespans; maybe they believe that they can see the long-term effects of things better than a short-lived mortal and therefore know better. Maybe it’s just their own selfish agendas. Either way, this crops up again and again in stories of the fae. In Labyrinth, Jareth wants Sarah to stay with him rather than taking her brother back to the human world. I like to believe he’s heartbroken when she refuses him, but whether that’s true or not, he’s definitely confused. Why would this human girl choose to leave behind immortal love and power to continue caring for a brother that she ostensibly didn’t want in the first place?
When The Perilous Gard’s Kate confronts the fairies’ Queen for the final time, the queen offers her a token of gratitude and respect: a spell that will guarantee that Kate’s companion Christopher will fall in love with her. Kate believes at this point in the story that Christopher is not in love with her, but she’s nevertheless disgusted by the Queen’s offer of what is, essentially, a date-rape drug. And yet the Queen can’t understand why Kate wouldn’t want it; it would, after all, make Kate theoretically happier, and her life easier.
The long and short of it is this: fairies are not particularly moral creatures, at least from a human point of view. However, this is what makes fairies interesting and, frankly, terrifying additions to a magical story. They’re a dark horse in terms of character; they act according to their own moral compasses, not out of respect for any human ideas, and they don’t necessarily understand why humans would fault them for doing so. In each of the cases I’ve mentioned that they do have a justification for their actions; but that justification only makes sense if you understand why the fae believe it. It forces us to consider that other races don’t have the same ideas we have, and makes us wonder whether morality is as universal as we might want to believe. Basically, fairies may seem like dicks to humans, but that dickishness makes them fascinating in terms of storytelling.
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