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