Friday, August 27, 2021

Can Fairies Lie?

 A reader of modern Urban Fantasies such as "Harry Dresden", "Mercy Thompson", "The Cruel Prince," and more likely has to wonder, were fairies really incapable of lying in folklore? In the "Cruel Prince", for example, lying is almost presented as a superpower that humans have, that fairies find amazing and confusing. More often this is used as a means of pushing the plot forward, allowing characters to semi-trust dangerous supernatural forces. In “Summer Knight” by Jim Butcher the Queen of the Winter Court says; “You should know, Mister Dresden, that my kind, from great to small, are bound to speak the truth.” 

I can’t be completely certain why so many writers have taken this one aspect of fairy lore to heart, even when they ignore most everything else associated with fairy nature. I think writers might have this aspect of fairy lore because it allows them to move the plot along. If the protagonists of these stories had to spend the whole time worried that the fairy was lying, the story wouldn’t be able to progress. This is likely also why fairies didn’t lie in many folktales. Just as Kings and similar people rarely lied in them, because when someone lies who has power of the protagonist it can interrupt the flow of the plot and fairytales are too short for those sudden reversals.

Okay, so I've already established that I think the fairies can't lie is a part of fairy lore - mostly. The place writers most likely got this idea from was Wentz's book where he states that the “Tuatha de Danann have a respect for honesty.” This is a common aspect of fairy behavior. In a Scandinavian story someone accuses a huldre folk of lying and is scolded by their fellow people, for everyone knows that the huldre’s honor is too great to willingly lie. Further, in fairytale after fairytale the fairies tell the truth, even when it would be so easy to get what they want by lying.

There is, however, little evidence that fairies can’t lie, rather, there is the evidence that they choose not to. At one time, and in some places, honor systems have been extremely important and it was much rarer for people to break social and cultural norms, although not unheard of and many kings became famous for doing so. It's important to remember that fairies were folk religious figures, and they often enforced social rules such as generosity, kindness, and honesty. 

 That said, there is some evidence that fairies could suffer for lying in part of Germany, at least.

In Arndt’s fairy tales from the island of Rugan, it is explained that the Unterirdeschen (underground ones) can’t lie or they will be turned into toads, dung-beetles, or other nasty creatures for a thousand years. So, in this case, the fairies can lie, but they fear being punished for it, although it isn’t certain who is doing the punishing.

Given that there is a fairy king or queen such a punishment might not stop lying all together, as a fairy could potentially be blackmailed, threatened, or rewarded into agreeing to spend a thousand years in an unpleasant form by lying on behalf of their monarch. Still, this doesn’t seem to happen in fairytales and it certainly hasn’t happened in modern books that I am aware of. Although Patricia Briggs has a book with a fairy who chooses to lie and is punished in other ways for it.

Being a folklorist I decided to put this idea to the test and read through hundreds of folktales and stories of people's encounters with fairies at random. In all that time I only found a few incidents that come close to lying, but aren't quite.  In the first an Irish story the teller tells;

My grandfather, you see, was out there above in the bog, drawing home turf, and the poor old mare was tired after her day's work, and the old man went out to the stable to look after her, and to see if she was eating her hay; and when he came to the stable-door there, my dear, he heard something hammering, hammering, hammering, just for all the world like a shoemaker making a shoe, and whistling all the time the prettiest tune he ever heard in his whole life before. Well, my grandfather, he thought it was the Cluricaune, and he said to himself, says he, "I'll catch you, if I can, and then I'll have money enough always." 

So he opened the door very quietly, and didn't make a bit of noise in the world that ever was heard; and he looked all about, but the never a bit of the little man he could see anywhere, but he heard him hammering and whistling, and so he looked and looked, till at last he see the little fellow; and where was he, do you think, but in the girth under the mare; and there he was with his little bit of an apron on him, and his hammer in his hand, and a little red nightcap on his head, and he making a shoe; and he was so busy with his work, and he was hammering and whistling so loud, that he never minded my grandfather till he caught him fast in his hand. 

"Faith, I have you now," says he, "and I'll never let you go till I get your purse -- that's what I won't; so give it here to me at once, now." 

"Stop, stop," says the Cluricaune, "stop, stop, says he, till I get it for you."

So my grandfather, like a fool, you see, opened his hand a little, and the little fellow jumped away laughing, and he never saw him any more, and the never a bit of the purse did he get, only the Cluricaune left his little shoe that he was making; and my grandfather was mad enough angry with himself for letting him go; but he had the shoe all his life, and my own mother told me she often see it, and had it in her hand, and 'twas the prettiest little shoe she ever saw.

Source ( Thomas Crofton Croker, Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland (London: John Murray, 1825), pp. 211-14.

Perhaps the fairy in this story did lie. Certainly the storyteller believes that her Grandfather was foolish for trusting the fairy.

Taking an apologist view, however a quick person will notice that the fairy in this story never promised to “stop, I’ll get you the treasure right away." The fairy said “Stop, till I get it for you.” Semantics matter in fairyland, so maybe somewhere in Ireland the Grandfather's grave is where the fairy keeps their gold for safe keeping, because they never said they wouldn’t steal the treasure back once they brought it to the person or when he would bring it to the tellers grandfather.

Second some people in the German mountains heard someone calling for help from the river, as they ran to help, getting exhausted and wet, they discovered that the person wasn't a person but a fairy using an illusion. Though again, the fairy didn't necessarily lie directly, they never said they were drowning, they just called for help. 

There is some evidence that people thought fairies could lie, however. People would torture someone they thought was changeling to force them to tell 'the truth' and when the person claimed they weren't a changeling, they would be tortured some more. Bridget was famously killed by her family, who were trying to rescue her from the fairy they thought had replaced her. 

That said fairies rarely ever needed to lie to trick people, for fairies were masters of illusion and mental glamor. That is, they could make a person see themselves in a vast forest and cause the person to walk in circles for hours, when they were in fact just a few feet from their own home.

Fairies didn’t need to lie because people believed what the fairies wanted them to, at least until a clever or alert person noticed some flaw with the illusion and broke it with bread, the cross, or by turning their clothes inside out.

A fairies trickery comes from the fact that those who encounter them have no way of knowing what’s real and what isn’t. Is the castle they are in a lake? Is the lake a castle? Is the fairy really standing there or are they an illusion too?

The fact that fairies don’t lie could also explain why fairies in tales so often speak in riddles. The fairies won’t given straight answers, even when they are telling the truth, because never giving a straight forward answer has become a part of their culture. We see something similar in human cultures where people try to avoid lying, even by accident.

When I lived in Alaskan villages, if you went to a door and asked a child if their parent is home and they would say maybe, because the parent might have slipped in or out the back while they were answering the door. Thus, you can never know for certain what the truth is, even when there would be no reason for a fairy to lie.

Yet, the inability to lie isn’t just a fairy weakness, when dealing with fairies it is a human one too. Remember, fairies are folk religious figures and may sometimes be based on former gods and ancestral spirits. Lying to them can, potentially, put the liar in the fairy’s power. Those in the fairy’s power are likely to be taken by them to fairyland, forced to work for them, for years or even forever.

These later ideas aren’t used in modern stories nearly as often as the general concept of fairies who can’t lie. This shows that while great stories often draw some inspiration from actual lore, there is no need to confine ones world to the rules and ideas that lore provides.

 Fairy Lies and Fantasy Writing Prompts

Write the story of a fairy who was forced to lie by their king/queen and so now has to live as an animal for a large number of years.

Write a story in which fairies can't lie to people but people can't lie to fairies but where fairies can lie to other fairies.

Write a riddle like conversation in which a fairy conceals the truth without lying.

See more Fantasy Writing Prompts

Follow me on Facebook