A Brief Survey of Faerie with John Burridge


Written by guest blogger, John Burridge. John is a science fiction and fantasy author, former Renaissance fair performer, fairy enthusiast and all around funny guy. John recently gave a presentation in Eugene on Faerie which I found insightful and inspiring. In fact, it was so inspiring I wrote two short stories immediately afterward based on some aspect of his presentation that sparked my imagination. For that reason, I wanted him to share his fairy expertize here.


Before I begin I should say that I’m a total Tolkien fan-boy.  I’ll be focusing on Western and Northern European folk customs, mostly because that’s what I’ve read the most of and about.  

To get an idea of where I’ll be, I want to ask, how many of you have seen Orlando Bloom in “The Lord of the Rings Movies”?  (Pause).  OK.  Good, now, how many of you have seen Edward from the Twilight movies?  OK, so, to quote Jason Foxtrot,  “Orlando Bloom has ruined everything!”  I’ll also say it once here so I don’t get sidetracked, “Augh! Elves! Don’t! Snowboard!”

Ancient Faerie as Elemental Force

Dwarves, Goblins, Dragons, Trolls, Elves and Fairies have been written about for a very long time, and tales about them have been told for even longer. There are several approaches to take when writing about Faerie, Elves, and Fairy Magic, and each of them has their own merits. Tolkien writes that the words elf and fairy are equivalent, but that fairy is a Tudor word popularized by authors like Spenser, Shakespeare and Drayton. Tolkien makes a distinction between fairy stories, dream tales, and adventure, wonder- or marvel stories. Elf is related to the Germanic word “Alf” as in swartalf.  

One early source about fairies are the Child Ballads. The elves in these ballads tend appear suddenly and steal people away — babes, maidens, queens and poets alike. Some elves are summoned by blowing horns, like Isabel’s Fairy Knight; some appear beneath special trees, like the Queen of Fairy before Thomas the Rhymer; others pierce their victim’s hearts with darts, like the Elfking in King Orefo.

Still others just live in the woods and prey on children like Goethe’s Erlkönig.  These stories use the fairies as boogie-men in cautionary tales for children. One example is the Kelpie that takes the form of a horse and tricks children into riding it, whereupon it jumps into the nearest pool or river and drowns them.

The old stories present the folk of Faerie as strange to or unmoved by human morality or desires. They are elemental and tricky like thunder and lightning, or a rip-tide in the ocean.  In these stories, Faerie operates as an element of a cautionary tale.


Mediaeval Faerie as Foil to Human Courts

Then there are the fairies of the Mabinogion, the Arthurian Romances, and the lays of Marie de France. In these, knights summon otherworldly lovers by blowing horns, ladling water out of fountains, or putting on rings.  Hmmm, no fertility imagery here.  Typically these fairy are women and aid the knight in a quest or redress some wrong done by a mortal court. Alternately, the knights camp out in an old haunted castle and risk being eaten (or worse) by an ugly, riddling spirit woman who usually turns into a beautiful bride by the time morning dawns and the knight has solved three riddles.

These medieval stories present fairies as foils to the mortal courts, and even the Courts of Heaven and Hell.  The fairies break binary thinking, and are both friend and foe simultaneously — dangerous as chaotic beings living outside the walls of civilization and beneficial as magical helpers.  Treating with them requires navigating taboos and prohibitions alien to mortal custom.  Almost always, the mortal breaks some rule — they open the forbidden door, they speak the fairy lover’s name, they taste the brew in the cauldron — and bring ruin, wrath and lamentation down upon themselves.


Renaissance Faerie as Rationalized Being

Tolkien theorizes that after the age of Enlightenment, Faerie began to be depicted in the language of rationality and science.  Elvin glamour became finesse.  This led to a kind of “domesticated” fairy, the Flower Fairy.  He places the blame for teeny-tiny fairies dressed in flower petals with deelybopper antenna squarely on Drayton’s Nymphidia.

Between Drayton, Spenser and Shakespeare, the fairies became agents of satire, allegory, and the author’s plot needs (“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is very driven by the plot device of “the fairies made me do it!”).  Sometime around this point, elves and fairies begin to be relegated to the nursery and peasant wisdom. In 1889, this (according to Tolkien) prompted Andrew Lang to complain in the Lilac Fairy Book, “these fairies try to be funny and fail, and try to preach and succeed.”

Another rationalization is to explain fairies as “savage” Northern European tribes of pygmies or Picts, long ago driven into the hinter-lands by the Romans or other civilized peoples.  This takes Faerie out of the realm of mythic tales and puts them into natural history tales.

From the flower fairies and anthropological fairies, it’s a short jump to Puck of Pook’s Hill, and Rudyard Kipling’s “Puck’s Song.” In the song, Puck sings about the rise and fall of human empires and cities.  We get the sense that the fairies are long-lived, and will continue to exist long after the last human ruin has crumbled.  Kipling’s Puck is diminutive and pointy eared, and he appears by accident after some children perform A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream on Mid-Summer Night.



John Burridge Bio


John Burridge’s parents wanted to be world travelers, so that’s why he was born at a dam construction site in Pakistan decades ago. Before long, he had scaled Egyptian temples, explored throne rooms, and raised havoc in cathedrals. 


On the family’s Oregon return, John’s focus soon turned to adventures of science, fiction, and fantasy.  By 4th grade, he wanted to be a physicist like his hero, Mr. Spock.  His physics fantasies died in college calculus, though John did learn to run Reed College’s experimental reactor.


John lives in Eugene with his family. He is a computer support technician by day and a fantasy and science fiction writer by night. Since 2001 he has been an active member of the Eugene Wordos, which he serves as co-chair. 


He is probably over-caffeinated.