Sunday, November 6, 2011

Introduction - Grimm's Fairies

Fairies are the whispers in the dark forest, gleeful laughs, playful songs on moonlit nights They are the breeze that dances through the trees, the fear we feel on dark nights or in shadowy forests. Fairies lend their good names to perhaps the most powerful of tales, yet these tales have never been about them. Indeed, fairies are often no more than stock characters that move the story along. Fairy scholar Diane Purkiss points out that fairies are, in and of themselves, more of a story element than actual characters. (Purkiss, 2007) As such, fairies are neither the protagonists nor the characters that drive the tales to which they lend their names. Rather, fairies tend to be an element much like a sunny day or diseases that plague a village. Fairies set the stage for the story by manipulating their surroundings. They are the trial to be overcome or the ones who raise up heroes to save us from dragons as they did with Saint George, Merlin, Lancelot, and Zeus. In ancient tradition, it was the fairies who controlled everything.

However in most stories they seem to do so without an understandable purpose or motivation. Fairies bring the storms that destroy our homes as well as the rains that saves our crops. Fairies helped produce the animals that feed our children while also attracting the wolves which devour them.

They appear seemingly from no where to give a sword or a secret power, some insight to make the world a better place, or to spread plagues and death before disappearing once more without a trace. Yet unlike many religions of today the magical beings, the fairies were believed by ancient Europeans to have a very real set of emotions and it was on these emotions that human fate rested. So while the motivations of forces of nature and the fairies within fairy tales may seem to be incomprehensible people once believed that they could interact with these forces of nature and fairies, that their happiness and safety depended on pleasing the fairies while they avoided offending them. So humans had strongly held beliefs about the motivations and personality of fairies. Humans in ancient Europe believed that they could dance and sing songs with them to please them, make sacrifices to please them and if necessary that they could scare them away. So as surely as any religious scholar in the modern day tries to discern the nature of the beings which they believe control our lives people once tried to discern the nature of fairies and they tried to pass this knowledge along in fairy tales.

What’s strange is that almost all the analysis of fairy tales leaves this important part of belief out of the stories, as if the religious and superstitious beliefs held about the fairies in fairy tales are not important to understanding their meaning or to understanding life in ancient times. Yet this belief in fairies surrounded everything people did in the ancient world so people had very clear beliefs about fairies, very clear understandings of why they did what they did. Even if it’s rarely explicitly stated, the fairies’ motivation is there just beneath the surface. We just have to look.

“Grimm’s Fairies” seeks to uncover the motivation of the fairies in Europe's fairy tales. To understand their nature and emotions as it was understood by the Europeans of the last five or six thousand years. This contrasts with modern literature where fairies as characters have been mutilated to the point where they are no longer comparable with the original fairy beliefs. This is unlike the usual linear investigation as the journey to understand fairies is more like navigating a maze within a labyrinth. It is a puzzle whose pieces are scattered widely among stories, superstitions, traditions, and folk beliefs. A maze with no definite end, one that always offers something more to see. After all, it is the nature of fairies to be something that occurs beyond our understanding. Despite their seemingly inexplicable quirks, however, there is some underlying connection between humans and fairies.

There is always something that draws us toward each other. There is a reason people believed that fairies inflicted disease on us on day and then helped us the next. There is also a reason they traded secrets in exchange for lustful encounters, or raise the gods as their children just as they did Zeus. The more I probed into their secret world, the more I realized that humans believed that they and fairies were intertwined – perhaps much closer than anyone in the modern age has ever suspected.