Monday, September 13, 2021

Fairies for Worldbuilders - Steampunk Fairies

“The age of chivalry is gone. That of the sophisters, economists, and calculators, has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever.” Edmund Burke 

The industrial revolution wore on and smog became so common that moths’ wings turned black and the rivers smelled so bad in London that the paper “City Press” stated; “it stinks, and whoso once inhales the stink can never forget it and can count himself lucky if he lives to remember it.” For many the world felt like it was being ruled by heartless industrialists and bean counters who intended work everyone to death and kill the world with filth in the process. 

Fairies represented an escape from this repressive, stink filled society. They were a nostalgia for an imagined and fading past of a joyous and rustic life. They were the beauty of the countryside. A rebellion against industrialism, despair, and repressive morality. 

We can see this push back against the ‘modern age’ through fairy are on display in the painting “The Nymphs and the Satyr.” A drawing of this massive painting in it’s home within a bar can be seen above. This painting was released during a time of heavy-handed moral policing and censorship. 

“Nymphs and Satyr made a stir because it both expressed and contained transgressive female sexual power. The theme of dangerous eroticism would have been obvious to any Gilded Age viewer.” After all, Nymphe du Pave was a word for streetwalker, nymphomania and satyriasis were terms for sexual obsession. People therefore were well-aware what aggressive nymphs and a satyr meant.

The nymphs in the painting, however, “don’t give themselves over to ecstatic adventure… rather they perform ecstasy and impulse for us. Their performance is itself a mode of transgressive power. It is not genuinely horrific and deadly, but it is not quite safe either.” (Sayre and Lowy)

This painting of nude nymphs being sexually playful with a satyr caused a stir, but also excitement and interest as so many women came to see it the owner had to ‘institute a weekly visiting day to accommodate their intrusion.” This is because the second half of the nineteenth century had a difference between the ideals that were espoused in public and personal behavior. That is there was a public sphere where people exhibited self-control and a private sensual underworld that fairies and mythological creatures allowed artists and people to discuss and explore. 

This rebellion against sterility and utility could be especially interesting for writers worldbuilding a steampunk like setting, where the act of seeking out and encountering certain fairies could be equated to a romanticist search for beauty and truth in nature. 

People began to dream of escaping the mundane world to a land of endless play and enchantment. At first many didn’t trivialize the romantic idea of fairyland because it was childish or whimsical but loved it because of these things. This largely cumulated in the fame of Peter Pan, a child who never wants to or has to grow up, who lives in a land that is perfectly set up for children to play with fairies and pirates.

This isn’t to say that everyone loved fairies. There was a philosophical and emotional battle however, between tradition and the new, the countryside and progressivism. The Enlightenment sought to create a better world, to cast off the shadows of the past and prejudice while the Romanticists sought the past and its traditions, putting them in a more romantic light, as it were. In this sense, the Romanticists were conservative, attempting to maintain an imagined culture, the shackles of which many wanted to escape. The fairies came to represent the goals of the romanticists and their emotional and philosophical decedents. 

 Jason Harris argues that such ‘fanciful but distorted representations’ of ‘sentimentalized fairies’ found in popular culture had ‘effaced the folk roots’ as artists and writers ‘dazzled’ the public. The spectacular and escapist nature of these fairy presentations naturally lent themselves to the whimsy of children’s culture. After all, the fairy tale was increasingly considered appropriate children’s literature in the late nineteenth century.

This escapist idealism contrasts, at least in part with early 19th century philosophers such as Schopenhauer who believed that the state of the sublime, beyond beauty, was to be found in terrifying landscapes and pain with beauty. It happens when one sees something stunningly beautiful that is also so fearsome or vast that they “consciously turn away” and in so doing “violently wrenching himself free from his will.” This in turn leads to an elevated state, or the feeling of the sublime. 

Such ideas are useful in so far as fairies are concerned for, they were at once dangerous forces of nature, beautiful and sometimes angelic spirits, dangerous, and helpful creatures. Many who encountered them reported being afraid, awed, and of course dazzled by them. 


I will be exploring the fairies of the Victorian Era in my new series of essays. So please follow me to learn more.


CONNOLLY, C. 2006. Irish Romanticism, 1800 - 1830. In: KELLEHER, M. & O'LEARY, P. (eds.) The Cambridge History of Irish Literature. Volume 1 to 1890. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Romanticism Against the Tide of Modernity By Michael Löwy, Robert Sayre

FAIRIES AND FOLKLORE THE HISTORY OF FAIRIES IN THE FOLKLORE SOCIETY 1878-1945 by Francesca Bihet

Monday, September 6, 2021

Economy of Fairyland for Writers and Worldbuilders

Survival, desire, and pleasure are the great motivators, and all three are wrapped up in the economy of a people and fairies. For the longest time most of humanities economy centered around the obtainment of food, whether this was through agriculture, pastoralism, or hunting and fishing. Fairies too would farm, fish, raise, cattle, make shoes, and have similar sorts of jobs. 

Yet fairies were often dependent on humans for at least a portion of their food and even mundane objects. For many fairies also had trouble creating mundane items such as ovens, pots, or even fire. Yet at the same time fairies were magical and so could help crops grow, create illusions, etc. In other words, the wealth of the fairies depended in large part on the success of the humans economy, which the fairies could influence. Fairy magic and fairy need meant that fairies could be at once wealthy and poor. 

Briggs (1959) states that "clean water and bread are often left out for fairies at night. Then the fairy ladies would come and wash their babies in the water set ready for them, warm themselves by the fire and eat the bread milk left for them. Then the house would be lucky, and the neat obliging maid would find sixpence in the pail or in her shoe. But if the house was left in disarray, pinching was the best that the maid could expect. Sometimes she might be cursed with lameness."

These fairies needed clean water, a fire, and food from a human, but they had silver in abundance. This, however, didn’t make all, or even most fairies wealthy. For fairies frequently, used illusions to make cheap food appear good, and dank caves appear like beautiful palaces. Such fairies were often poor, but they wished to appear rich. As such, one of their most frequent means of obtaining goods was through theft. In some cases, however, they would repay those they stole from with luck, making people who the fairies stole from prosper more than they otherwise would have. 

Fairies would visit human markets in disguise in German, 

Britain, and other places, often to steal what they needed.

"Strange were the doings of little folk in Ambleside fair 

and market. Dressed as common folk, they would mingle 

with the marketing folk, and then by blowing at women 

at the market stalls, they became invisible, and were 

enabled to steal things from the stalls."

Newman, L., & Wilson, E. (1952). Folklore Survivals in 

the Southern "Lake Counties" and in Essex: A 

Comparison and Contrast. Folklore, 63(2), 91-104. 


Others would disguise themselves and purchase what they needed fairly. Plant Rhys Dwfn visited markets in Cardigan and Fishguard and paid so much they cleared the market and raised the price of grain. 

There are a few tales of fairies hosting their own market; however, these are most commonly found in Somerset.  It's possible that that these markets weren't equipped to deal with money, as there are reports that fairies didn't exchange money at these, but rather emotions and ideas.

Still, fairies often did exchange physical goods for the use of human objects such as kettles, ovens, etc. 

What we see then is that there were five common ways that the fairies people encountered obtained food and other objects they needed.  

The first of these was through banditry, by using their illusions and natural stealth. 

The second was helping humans create objects, grow crops, etc. Some of these fairies such as the pixies would even help with farm work such as threshing, reaping, and mowing the fields. Other fairies would grant humans skills in crafts and other forms of aid in return for offerings of food.

Thirdly fairies would trade with humans or borrow from them. 

Fourthly, fairies could hire or kidnap humans to work for them, providing them with what they needed.

Finally, There were fairies who would raise cattle and farm or hunt. Indeed, there are many stories from Norway and France of people being hired to help watch the fairies cattle for a short period of time or even as a long term job. Other fairies, such as Leprechauns (who made shoes) would make things to sell to their fellow fairies. 

Despite this last means of obtaining food it is interesting that fairies so frequently depended on humans for their food, art and other goods. Indeed, aristocratic would even hire or kidnap humans who could perform music. Fairies of the land would often go to listen to humans joke and tell stories, so even here, humans were an important part of the fairy economy. 

 As I have pointed out many times on this blog and in my books then, there is an interesting push and pull between humans and fairies who need and fear each other for numerous reasons. 


Fantasy Writing Prompts Related to "The Fairy Economy"

Write a story about someone who is hired to care for a fairies cattle. In folklore those hired in this way often became godparents to the fairy's children. 

Write a story about someone encountering a fairy market. 

Write a story about some fairies who can't start fires sneaking into some ones home to use their oven in secret. 

Write the story of someone who exchanges food and mundane goods such as kettles or cups with the fairies in return for magical trinkets and potions.

See more Fantasy Writing Prompts

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Friday, September 3, 2021

Worldbuilding, fantasy food, cultures, and folklore

 There is a sort of magic in food that many storytellers have used to enhance the quite, awe inspiring, or even terrifying moments of the tales they tell. Take for example the following moment from "Dragons of Autumn Twilight,"

"Tas flung the door open wid. A wave of light, noise, heat, and the familiar smell of Otik's spicy potatoes hit them full in the face. It engulfed them and washed over them soothingly. (Wies and Hickman)"

It is the description of the smell of the “spicy potatoes” that really makes this moment feel like coming the characters are coming home after years away. The smell of food creates an emotional bridge to a time of happiness and peace that motivates the characters when the war that is about to happen takes this inn away from them. Throughout the book the protagonists long to taste these potatoes of their home once more. 

As with everything else in storytelling the most important question when including a food is how it fits into the story emotionally. The ‘spicy potatoes’ in "Dragons of Autumn Twilight" work because potatoes are a comfort food, they can feel associated with the French fries of our childhood, or the potato salads of picnics and barbeques. Yet the name makes them feel unique and exotic enough that they fit within a fantasy world and a town that is at a crossroad for trade. 

Food can fill such a strong emotional function with stories because it has been one of the primary concerns of humans since before we were human, so its no wonder that it features so strongly in so many of our oldest fairytales. As Tatar states; 

"Food – its presence and its absence – shapes the social world of fairy tales in profound ways. It is not at all uncommon for a peasant hero, faced with three wishes, to ask first for a plate of meat and potatoes, or to be so distracted by hunger that he years out loud for a sausage while contemplating the limitless possibilities before him."

Food has strong association with our parents, our family, but also our culture. Indeed, food is so important that just as Tolkien centered his world around his hobby of creating languages, a person could easily center their world building efforts around inventing interesting new cuisines. 

"Food touches everything. Food is the foundation of every economy. It is a central pawn in political strategies of states and households. Food marks social differences, boundaries, bonds, and contradictions." (Counihan, C. & P. van Esterick (1997, Food and Culture: A Reader)

This was even more true in the past when 90% of the population, or more, was involved in the production of food in some way, the food a culture ate could change every aspect of people's daily lives in that culture. Thus, any culture in a world you invent will be heavily impacted by the foods they eat. The wiki for The Forgotten Realms world, for example, states that one of the species known as halflings enjoys cheese as a primary food source. This makes sense given that their personalities would make them appreciate comfort food, of which cheese is a big part in many European countries. Still, less often mentioned is the fact that in order to get cheese the halflings would need to raise cattle, sheep, goats, reindeer or some other animal. Buildings would have to be built to feed these animals and to store their feed in the winter, altering their villages architecture. The halflings would also need to figure out a way to protect the cattle in a land filled with dragons, orcs, giants, and other monsters. There would also have to be up early in the morning to milk the cattle, stories would told while watching cattle in the fields, thus like the Scottish and Norwegians many of their fairytales would likely involve people who watch the cattle. Further, the people would likely worship gods and make deals with fairies and spirits that could help them with caring for cattle and making cheese. 

There are numerous fairytales about people encountering the fairies while herding their cattle in the mountains, fields, or forests. Indeed, as already mentioned those who would herd cattle were often considered to be akin to witches, and able to negotiate with the spirits of the wilderness. The Finnish and Karlinians had there own unique take on this, believing that there was a sort of “cattle elf. This was a supernatural being that could protect and take care of the cattle and was in some places believed to dwell in sauna stoves.” The stones from these stoves could then be brought into the forests when herding cattle to help protect and heal the animals. 

(A hard matter: stones in Finnish-Karelian folk belief. Timo Muhonen)

As you can see the simple decision to have halfings eat cheese can completely alter the way their culture, the way the live, and the spirits they associate with and hold in the highest regard. Obviously, you don’t need to include the full complexity of any food choice in your book, just what is important to your story. Still, being generally aware of history, economy, and folklore can give you ideas as you write. 

To simplify the quest of understanding how food fits into the cultures of your world and the character’s palates, however, you can keep in mind a number of key questions.

What is the impact of the supernatural, history, availability, on ingredient selection?

Read through the history of many cuisines and you will find that immigration and historical encounters can have an outsized impact on the palette of any culture. The Hawaiians, for example, added some Spanish foods to their cuisine after a sailor gifted King Kamehameha some cattle, leading King Kamehameha III to hire Spanish vaqueros to manage the animals. Britain began choosing tea over coffee, in part, because the queen Catherine of Braganza (who was a Portuguese princess) preferred this drink and built its popularity among high society. 

Folklore too has a number of stories about how food ingredients became popular. Fairies like milk, vampires were kept at bay by garlic, and good witches used fennel to help insure the success of crops. Thus, the preferences of  fairies or other magical beings could have an outsized impact on the choices a culture made. For example, a world with dragons might raise lots of small goats, rather than a few large cattle in order to reduce the damage when an animal was taken, and to have an offering on hand when a dragon comes looking for a meal.

Obviously you can choose the ingredients that a given culture in your fantasy world prefers based on emotions and ideas associated with our own world. You might, for example, have a people eat rich buttery foods and cheeses because you want to associate them with France or the Midwestern cultures. Certainly the cultures within "Game of Thrones" ate foods based on medieval Western European cuisines to help us stay in that frame of mind for the book.  


Who eats the food and when?

The Romans avoided eating butter because it was a Barbarian food (just like they outlawed pants in cities because they were barbarian clothes). What people eat and win can have a large impact on how people feel about a food. In most cultures the wealthy and the poor eat different foods, and the foods the wealthy eat such as caviar and truffles, have a different emotional association than those the poor eat, such as corn dogs. Indeed, we might find some people avoiding a food based on its associations. For example, Americans will rarely eat roast turkey in the summer because turkey is associated with fall and winter holidays. 


What are the philosophies behind food choice? 

Philosophies have often had a huge impact on food choices. For example, 

"Bread symbolized humanity leaving the natural world and becoming human. In the Iliad and the Odyssey ‘bread eaters’ are ‘men.’ In Gilgamesh, the first literary text known, a wild man only leaves his wildness behind when he learns of bread, from a woman." (Food is Culture by Massimo Montanari)

Thus bread became symbolically important to humans, but in a fantasy world certain elves or other people’s might view it negatively due to its association with 'humanity'. But philosophical ideas can run even deeper than that. The Greek philosopher Aristotle thought that boiling as superior to roasting because “roast meats being rawer and drier than boiled meats.” The philosophers of the Ancient Greeks in general viewed roasting meat as primitive and raw. Many people around the world thought something similar. In Guiana the sorcerers of the Waiwai tribe had a taboo against roasted meat which is associated with rawness. Similarly, the Wyandot American tribe has myths about negative associations with roasted meat for similar reasons. Less extreme perhaps but In France boiled chicken was for the family to eat, while roasted chicken was for a banquet. (Food and Culture A Reader 1997). 

Thus, many people's boiled meat, rather than frying or roasting it based on a philosophical idea. 


What emotions do people and especially the characters associated with the food? 

Most foods have some emotion associated with them, based on who consumes the food and how. PB and J, for example, has very specific emotions associated with it, such as incense, whimsy, and potentially poverty. Such associations are based on the fact that children eat it. Obviously such emotional associations can change over time and have a multitude of emotions associated with it. Coffee and tea began life as stimulants, they were a way to wake up to gain new energy, etc. Now, however, they are also often associated with relaxation and breaks, because this is how they are being used – as coffee breaks during work, thus in addition to waking up they are a way to destress and unwind. Tea, thanks to its associations with British nobility in the minds of Americans, has come to be associated with elegance that makes certain children want to play at having a tea party. This in turn can associate certain aspects of tea with childhood as well. There is a scene in the TV series “Big Bang Theory” where some of the protagonists, wanting to do something ‘mature’ and sophisticated go to a tea house, where they are surrounded by children who want to do the same. 


How is the food obtained and distributed? 

How a food is obtained and distributed can greatly alter the course of history, and a culture. If Britain hadn't been getting tea from China, for example, there likely never would have been the war that between these nations that lead to the creation of Hong Kong. 

There are arguments made that the family culture of Japan comes largely from their histical methods for growing rice, which required a lot of laborers to work closely together. This is opposite from the more solitary exercise of wheat farming or cattle ranching. 

The distribution of any food can lead a city to include homes in the mountains, which they move to when they herd their cattle to the alpine pastures, or entire cities based and market fairs based around the spice trade. 

I will publish more articles on food, culture, and fairytales if you are interested, please consider following me.