Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Understanding Fairy Mythology -Fairy Tales and Fantasy for Artists - p18

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Understanding Fairytales and Fairy Mythology

 by Ty Hulse

The sun is setting and you are so hungry its difficult to think, despite the inedible leaves you stuffed yourself with in hopes of staving off the pains of starvations. That’s when there’s a knock at the door. On answering you discover a tiny man with a goose’s foot, a fairy! Your first reaction is to slam the door in the fairy’s face, for you have heard stories about fairies eating people’s brains, known people who died when ‘scared to death by the fairies’, or have been carried off to work for the fairies forever. But you hesitate, you are starving and you have also heard of fairies making people wealthy beyond belief and granting people food and success. 

What to do when someone encountered a fairy was once a serious question that people pondered frequently. 

Because of this fairytales are frequently stories of people’s encounters with the otherworld and their moral often is how to react when one encounters a supernatural entity or finds themselves in a strange and enchanted land. 

Emma Wilby states that; 

Most people today would consider themselves to have little or no knowledge about early modern familiars. In reality, however, the basic dynamics of the relationship between a cunning woman or witch, and her spirit ally, is easily recognizable to all of us, being encapsulated in narrative themes running through traditional folk tales and myths from throughout the world. Classics such as Rumpelstiltskin, Puss-in-Boots, the Frog Prince and so on, are representative. In these tales the protagonist usually finds themselves alone and in some kind of trouble, when a supernatural being appears suddenly before them and offers to help in some way. These fairy stories and myths originate from the same reservoir of folk belief as the descriptions of familiar-encounters given by cunning folk and witches in early modern Britain.

Fairytales are frequently “closely tied to rituals, customs, and beliefs of tribes, communities, and trades. They fostered a sense of belonging and hope that miracles involving some kind of magical transformation were possible to bring about a better world. They instructed, amused, warned, initiated, and enlightened.” (Zipes)

Many fairytales have these magical encounters between animal spirits or fairies and humans, and so could potentially provide us with some of the general rules for surviving and thriving because of such an encounter. That said a large part of the challenge of understanding fairytales is that a single fairy tale might be made up of motifs from multiple eras and lands, not all of which the teller even understands.

Motifs, like used bricks, can be recycled into new tales of different types. Fairy tales are veritable catalogs of ancient beliefs and practices, some – like the acceptance of fairies or the belief in magic healing wells- that were active well into the twentieth century. Other motifs – like gaining control over a supernatural being by discovering and pronouncing his name (as in ‘Rumpelstiltskin’) or foreseeing the future through the magic gift of understanding the language of birds – died out long ago as generally accepted beliefs but live on in fairy tales. (Ashliman)


Many of these ancient motifs come from religions and mythologies of other places and times, that were forgotten or never known in the place where the story was being told. Because of this people have long had to search for their own meaning to many of the strange events in fairytales. The Anthropologist Tehrani and folklorest Desilva used a number of techniques borrowed from biology to show that many fairytales are likely more than 5000 years old, and have their origin North of the Black Sea, rather than the parts of Europe where they were collected in the 19th and 20th century. If this is true it would mean that many of the Motifs in the stories collected by Grimm come from a place thousands of miles from Germany, and five thousands or more years before the stories were collected. 


This is part of what makes fairytales so exciting and freeing for the fantasy writer, because they allow writers and artists to use their imagination. So, while it can be interesting and inspiring to dig into older interpretations and meanings of a fairytale it can also be fun to come up with as many odd ideas about it as you can. Take “Ella Enchanted” or “Shrek”. In each of these the fairy godmother is a sort of species which comes to grant a gift to every child born, or they are a celebrity peddling in wishes and ‘Hollywoodesque’ dreams. In the original fairytale the ‘Fairy Godmother’ was likely a fairy who had been friends with Cinderella’s mother and so had stood as her Godmother, just as humans and fairies often acted as godparents for each other. This ‘original’ understanding of the motif, however, doesn’t fit with the plots and themes of “Ella Enchanted” or “Shrek” who choose instead to come to their own understanding. This is one of the big advantages of fairytales, their motifs can be interpreted many ways to fit new story ideas and social changes. Still, it can be worth it to try to understand and find inspiration in the original motifs.