Fairy and Fairy Tales

During my Christmas holiday, I’ve largely indulged two things for which my appetite is large — Marvel superhero films* and the world(s) of fantasy. The latter has taken the form of The Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary, A Short History of Fantasy, Terry Pratchett’s sci-fi novel Strata (with a classic, garish Pratchett cover) and currently The Complete Fairy Tales of George MacDonald — the Penguin edition, edited by U C Knoepflmacher.

You’d think that a professor of English at Princeton who has written such books as Ventures into Childland: Victorians, Fairy Tales, and Femininity and Forbidden Journeys: Fairy Tales and Fantasies by Victorian Women Writers wouldn’t make the error I’m about to highlight, but perhaps Prof. Knoepflmacher is more interested in the alleged asexuality of MacDonald’s characters and other gender issues than philology (although the introduction is, by and large, very good).

I, on the other hand, prefer philology.

The error Knoepflmacher (who has a tremendous name!) is to inform the reader that the first three MacDonald fairy tales in the collection, ‘The Light Princess’, ‘The Shadows’, and ‘The Giant’s Heart’, are not really ‘fairy tales’, there being no fairies in them.

Alas that a distinguished professor who probably writes interesting literary criticism could fall so easily into the trap set for all readers by what C S Lewis calls the ‘dangerous sense’ of a word (in Studies in Words). A word’s dangerous sense is the commonest sense in current use that could easily be confused with other and older senses that context cannot immediately reveal to the reader.

So with fairy.

A ‘fairy story’ or ‘fairy tale’ is not a story or tale about fairies. It is, as Tolkien makes clear in his essay ‘On Fairy Stories’ (in Tree and Leaf), a  story or tale about fairy. Most contemporary writers of fantasy try to disassociate these two senses of fairy by using the alternate spelling faerie or a variation thereof. This sense is not about ‘those little twinkly guys’ — not about Oberon or Puck or Tinkerbell or the Man with the Thistle-Down Hair — but about the realm of fairy, of Faerie.

Here, etymology actually saves us, rather than leading us down the terrible path of the Etymological Fallacy, so common to undergrads and popular preachers, that the oldest or root meaning of a word is its truest meaning or ever-present meaning in time of trouble. In this case, the stories we term ‘fairy tales’ are clearly tales about faerie not fairies.

Take, for example, Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Little Mermaid.’ There are no fairies in this tale, but it is about mermaids and witches and magic. Or the Grimm version of ‘Cinderella’ (vs the earlier version of Perrault or the later version of Disney with the Fairy Godmother) with the supernatural intervention of Cinderella’s mother and a bunch of birds. Or ‘Little Red Riding Hood’. Or ‘The Fir Tree’. These tales are not about fairies, but the subject is very much faerie.

Faerie is the land where fairies dwell. It is the Other World. It is a place inhabited not just by pixies and sprites or the Good Folk or Tolkienesque elves but also by dwarves and unicorns and trolls and sorcerers and witches and magic swords and singing mountains and talking wolves and giants and sentient trees and so on and so forth. The spirit of faerie need not be bound to some other locale, some pseudo-physical difference in spatiality but, rather, is to be found wherever the folk of faerie, from Puck and Peter Pan to Poseidon and Pippin.

And, of course, if faerie’s boundaries are not fixed spatially, then the otherplace can be right here. Right now. In your living room. Or cubicle. Or on the subway as you make your way home from work. Perhaps magic and faerie and all suchlike are to be found everywhere.

*Iron Man 2, Thor, Captain America, Avengers Assemble (because this is Britain), and The Incredible Hulk.

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