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Those Horrible, Terrible… Fairies!

fairy niceLast weekend, I went to go see a new movie by Guillermo del Toro… well not a new movie exactly, because it was a remake of a 70s horror classic called Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark.  As it turns out, the remake was excellent, in fact more frightening than the original, and I maintain my awe and admiration of Guillermo as an amazing fantasist and horror director.   Personally, I think the movie was more frightening because he chose to add a young girl to the cast, as the target of the “dark forces” – and let’s admit that there are almost no adult that can hear a child scream in terror and not have their adrenal glands kick into high gear.

As it turns out, as was never fully rationalized in the original movie, Guillermo takes the time to explain the “dark forces” in the film as fairies, which in no way detracted from making the little monsters truly terrifying.  But it got me thinking about the nature of fairies this past week, and made me realize that fairies are actually pretty darned scary!

Fairies on Film

Despite the fact that no one is supposed to ever be able to photograph or film these elusive fey beings, Fairies and fey monsters have been depicted in quite a few recent films and television shows as some very nasty vicious creatures.  Not torchwood fairesonly was Mr. del Toro responsible for evil fairy critters in Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, but dark fairy folk have made appearances in Hell Boy 2: The Golden Army and the beautifully filmed Pan’s Labyrinth.  Evil fairies were also a major villainous group in a 2006 Torchwood episode, Small Worlds, in which homicidal fey beings murdered several people so they could claim a small child and make her one of them.  Of course, the Harry Potter films are lousy with dark fey creatures, from boggarts to Cornish Pixies – and for the record, I want a Cornish Pixie as a pet… they just look too cool – not to mention grindylows, centaurs, and a basilisk.  And the old 80s fantasy classic, Labyrinth, cast David Bowie as an eladrin-looking fairy called “The Goblin King”, and he was quite unruffled about stealing babies away from their sisters just to be funny.

If you really consider the depictions in just this short list, fairies are creatures that are not to be trifled with and should be actively avoided!  Regardless of their respective species, they are dangerous, capricious, and downright scary – they are predators for the most part, and mortals are their favorite prey!

Classical Fairy Myths

If you go back to original fairy stories, myths, and legends, you are again confronted by the fact that fey creatures are nothing to be trifled with!  Fairy folk have been preying on mankind for millennia, across all  continents, and in all cultures.  Let’s face the facts -Tinkerbell is the lie we tell ourselves about the nature of fairies – thank you Mr. Barrie and Mr. Disney – but in all honesty, the classical myths are far more terrifying.

In fact, Captain Jack, in the aforementioned Torchwood Episode, described fairies in a simlar way:

“… we know nothing about them. So we pretend to know what they look like. We see them as happy. We pretend they have tiny little wings and are bathed in moonlight.  Think dangerous. Think something you can only half-see. Like a glimpse, like something out of the corner of your eye. With a touch of myth, a touch of the spirit world, a touch of reality, all jumbled together.”

And consider that without even going back to folklore and myths, classical authors have been warning us about the dangers of dabbling with fairies for centuries.  Shakespeare wrote several plays in which the fairy world touches the mortal realm in dangerous and frightening ways.  le belle dameA Midsummer Night’s Dream is most obvious warning not to let fairies get near you, but nasty fey folk also turn up (or are at least mentioned negatively) in The Tempest, Merry Wives of Windsor, The Comedy of Errors, and even Romeo and Juliet.  Edmund Spenser wrote of dangerous fairies tempting the virtue of knights and ladies in The Faerie Queene.  And Keats warns men everywhere about the perils of dallying with elven ladies in his ballad, Le Bell Dame sans Merci.

Go back far enough in classical literature, and you run across the Tuatha Dé Danann, the famous myth cycle of ancient Ireland describing how the old Irish tribes drove out the fey folk and conquered their land.  The fairy folk fight back, of course, and the tale is full of magic, quests, and battles.  Personally, I believe that this myth cycle is one of the foundations that WotC designers used when they conceived the Feywild.

Fairies in Folklore

If you really want to get creeped out, check out the original folklore surrounding fairies and fairy creatures.  English, Irish, and Scottish folklore have hundreds of terrible fey and fairy creatures lurking all over Great Britain, and it’s frankly a wonder there are any mortals left that were not gobbled up by these horrible creatures!

Hags are big in the folklore of the British Isles, with these creatures given names like Black Annis (or Agnes), and are well known for taking and gobbling up small children.  And hags of all kinds show up in folklore throughout the world in other countries, including the famed Baba Yaga, from Russian legends, and they are all extremely dangerous fairy folk.  If in doubt, just read your Monster Compendium!

Evil hounds are said to haunt wilderness areas, some as ghosts and some as fey monsters. Creatures like Black Schuck are said to have stalked travelers on the moors since the time of the Vikings, and was likely the inspiration for the Sherlock Holmes story, The Hound of the Baskervilles.

There are plenty of fairies dwelling in water ways, canals, ponds, rivers, and the sea.  The alp-luachra is an evil, greedy fairy from Irish mythology, and attacks a person who falls asleep by the side of a stream, by changing into the form of a newt.  It crawls down the person’s mouth, feeding off the food that they had eaten.  Grindylows are said to grab little children with their long arms and fingers and devour them if they come too close to the water’s edge at a pond or pool.  Merrow folk – the fairy version of mermaids – lure young men to swim to them and drown, using the feminine wiles of their upper bodies, their lower torsos being fish-formed.

But even staying out of the water is not sufficient to escape the water fairies.  Selkies are fey were-seals who come ashore to find husbands and wives, and then run off with all the children back to the sea when their true form is revealed.  It makes for an odd sort of divorce…

Changelings are fey creatures that assume human form and are left after a baby or child has been stolen or devoured by fairies.  Almost every culture has a changeling myth, with parents having to take bizarre precautions – such as leaving iron in cradles – to keep the fairies away.

And while not all fairies are hideous monsters, many are beautiful but deadly to mortals.  Dryads are tree fairies that punish those who harm their trees, which is really rough when your medieval society uses wood for everything from building materials to keeping warm at night.  A fairy muse known as the leanhaun shee seeks the love of mortals, and if they refuse, she must be their slave; if they consent, they are hers, and can only escape by finding another to take their place.  The male counterpart is a gancanagh, a faerie in Irish mythology that seduces human women, and have an addictive toxin in their skin that makes humans addicted to them. The women seduced a gancanagh typically die from the withdrawal.

And Red Caps are fey goblins that chase down travelers and stain their hats with blood.  Of course, this amazing dying method is not popular with the local human inhabitants.

And that’s just a smattering of fairy folklore from the British Isles.  Other countries have equally diverse fairy folk, all of whom view humans as a nuisance deserving abusive tricks, or as a food source.  So given the ferociousness of fairies and fey folk in legends and myths, doesn’t it seem likely the Feywild is even a more dangerous place than is suggested in 4E resources?

The 4E Fairyworld of the Feywild

While some of the inhabitants of the Feywild, such as eladrin and elves, might be considered at least friendly to mortals, the legends and myths surrounding fairies would tend to suggest that the lands of the Feywild are a pretty horrifying place.  Given the concept of “points of light” that 4E puts forth as a design concept for most campaign worlds, the Feywild is likely to be one of the nastiest places to be if you’re not keeping close to one of those “light points”.

Looking over the evidence of the sociopathic behavior of fairies toward the mortal realm has made me seriously rethink how I would represent the Feywild in my campaign.  If not close to an eladrin city, or along a well-patrolled route through the wilderness, the Feywild should be a horrific experience for most adventurers, filled with violent encounters against fairy folk and fey creatures that stalk and hunt the heroes mercilously, or at least bedevil them with trickery and misdirection as a sort of sport.  The Feywild is not a place one would want to just go camping off the beaten path, for chances are the characters would be injured, maimed, or worse on the very first night they bedded down.

And in rethinking the Feywild, given the tales and folklore of homicidal fairies, it makes me really look forward to seeing hof coverhow the new character supplement, Heroes of the Feywild, expands upon the nature of the Feywild as the Heroes of Shadow suggested new ways to look at the Shadowfell.  Just as the Shadowfell is a terrifying, haunted landscape of nightmarish creatures like undead and lycanthrope, the Feywild should really be considered just as dangerous and terrifying.  Away from its eladrin and elven cities and towns, the Feywild should be a place of great beauty, which only barely masks the claws and teeth of fairy predators lurking in the underbrush.  And while the Feywild is a magical place, that magic is capriciously bent by the whims of creatures which have no more humanity in their souls than an undead monster.  Less really, because most undead were once human, and some retain a spark of humanity however dim and tainted by shadow, while fairies are truly alien compared to mortals, with drives and passions which should barely be comprehendible.

So putting fairies into that light – do you really want to go adventuring in the Feywild?!

So until next blog… I wish you happy gaming!

About The Author

Michael is an Adept of a Secret Order of Dungeon Masters, and dwells in a hidden realm with his two evil cat-familiars, deep within the Vale of Wolverines, called by some "Michigan". He has been esoterically conjuring D&D Campaigns for nearly a Third of a Century, and has been known to cast ritual blogs concerning Dungeons & Dragons every few days with some regularity. Michael has freelanced for Wizards of the Coast, and writes reviews of D&D and other Role-Playing Game products on EN World News.


7 Responses to “Those Horrible, Terrible… Fairies!”

  1. Draco says:

    Nice article! I was debating whether I wanted to see DBAOTD I’ve had faeries on the brain for a while, now. They kind of play a major role in my homebrew campaign:

    And I’ve also listed Labyrinth, Hellboy 2, Midsummer Night’s Dream, and The Tempest as major inspirations for the campaign. :)

    In fact, just this last week I decided to go forward with a plan to start statting out some more fey creatures. I like that 4e has dipped its toes into a bit of traditional myth and lore, and I’m definitely looking forward to the upcoming stuff from WotC. But I can’t wait, so I’ll see how the official stuff from Wizards compares to what I come up with!

    This article has both shortened and added to my research time, I think. Either way, thank you!

  2. Swordgleam says:

    If you go with the old tales, the cities should be the MOST dangerous places in the Feywild! I’d rather face ten hags than a faerie court.

  3. Draco says:

    Swordgleam – A good observation! I sort of tried to get that across when my PCs were summoned to Mithrendain, but I might need to step it up a notch next time.

    While Mithrendain might be presented as nominally safe territory, the eladrin courts are definitely not meant to be 100% “safe”! Just look at the Bramble Queen article in Dungeon and all of the Winter Court stuff! :)

  4. @Swordgleam & Draco – I’ll agree that Fey Courts are treacherous and unsafe, but entangling characters’ in the intricate plots of the Fey Lords and Ladies is exactly the kind of thing you’d want from a Feywild adventure – tons of adventure hooks there. But characters could also visit an eladrin city, and never get involved with the Court, just as heroes might travel to a dangerous city in the mundane realm, and never come to the attention of the evil lord that rules it. I think that the eladrin cities should still be points of light in a Feywild campaign, having at least some general rules of conduct – albeit fey and capricious – as opposed to the wild areas where anything can happen!

  5. Mike says:

    Del Toro did not direct this film, he only produced it. Did you really think this movie was scary? It reminded me of Gremlins. I thought it was creepy until you actually see the little critters, after that it was just Gremlins on steriods. It felt like more of an adventure movie than a horror movie to me. I think it would have made a better story if they had brought a Rat Terrier or a couple of cats into the house to “take care” of the problem. And, by the way, who still has a Polaroid camera with film?!

  6. Draco says:

    Editor — I’ll begrudgingly give you the eladrin city as a “point of light” as long as that light is a gloaming, will-o-the-wisp sort of light. ;)

  7. Well not scary in a typical “slash and spatter” film kinda way, which tends to just get boring to me after the third bucket of blood, but more along the lines of creepy freaky like Paranormal Activity kinda way. Gremlins was pure farce, but I’ll grant you the adventure movie feel – in fact it was almost like a Call of Cthulhu adventure, where the more you learn about the big ole weird mansion and its history, the more creeped out you feel about it, becoming aware that it houses a brooding evil waiting to manifest itself. And personally, my money would still be on the evil fairies – no family pet is gonna survive what those little fey critters could have done to it.

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