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simonpimpernel
Registered User
(9/8/07 5:39 pm)


Elves and Fairies
Hi folks -

I've been lurking here for a little while and find the site to be fascinating, but this is my first actual post. :o

I've been reading a lot about elves and fairies lately, with a view to writing a story featuring folklore from all over the UK, and i'm confused as to how to piece everything together.

As far as i know elves and Alfheim are Anglo-Saxon concepts. On the other hand fairies are Celtic concepts and are said to be the remnants of the Tuatha De Danann living in the Otherworld. The trouble is Wikipedia and most other sources i come across seem to regard elves and fairies as one and the same, which confuses the issue for me. I would like for story purposes to be able to say that they are the same, but by extension wouldn't this imply that the Celtic pantheon is some sort of subclass or offshoot of AS mythology?

Furthermore i'm confused about the "structure" of fairy society. I would like to be able to say that the fairies/elves are divided into the Seelie and Unseelie courts, with Oberon and Titania ruling the Seelie court and Mab ruling the Unseelie court. However, i read recently that Ireland has a whole bunch of fairy kings and queens such as Finvarra and Aeval, which i can't seem to reconcile with the use of Oberon/Titania and Mab.

And if the fairies/elves are really the remnants of the Tuatha De Danann then wouldn't the fairies/elves be ruled by the Dagda or Nuada or one of those? Doesn't that contradict both the notion of Oberon/Titania and Mab, and also the multiple fairy monarchs of Irish folklore?

Can anyone please help me to reconcile some of this? i would be extremely grateful. :(

MaryCatelli
Registered User
(9/8/07 8:14 pm)


Re: Elves and Fairies
The people who actually believed in elves and fairies were perfectly willing to mix and match with all sorts of beliefs.

I also note that "fairy" comes Latin, not from Celtic, and they figure in Spanish and Italian tales.

No reason why there can't be competing kings in Faerie as well in human lands.

catja1
Registered User
(9/19/07 4:50 pm)


Re: Elves and Fairies
If you're looking for "elves" to be named as a specific class that is distinct from "fairies," I'm afraid you'll be disappointed; the terms used in a collection have far more to do with local usage and dialect (or the preference of the folklorist) than any perceived difference in species of the beings under consideration. Moreover, the people from whom folklorists collected fairy beliefs were just as likely to refuse to use such overt terms, preferring euphemisms such as "the Gentry," "the Good People," or "Themselves."

You're attempting to find coherence and consistency in material where, frankly, there isn't any. Fairies in some places are said to have a king and/or queen, and those rulers are given various names. Fairies in other places are divided into oppositional bodies (i.e., Seelie vs. Unseelie). In still other places, people don't conceive of fairies as having that level of organization. It varies a *lot*, based on time, place, and individuals involved (both informants and collectors) -- and then you have literary fantasies, which may or may not be based on actual folk beliefs, and which may or may not have made their way back into the folk repertoire.

Catja

Van45us
Registered User
(9/25/07 9:58 pm)


Re: Elves and Fairies
Also, people, both ancient and modern, have a tendency to "fill in the gaps." The fey (for lack of a better term) are basically spirit beings who exist in nearly every culture in the world. The names are different, the behavior either the same or similar or altogether different. They have either observed or guessed at functions, and the rest is made up by people, writers, folktale tellers, etc. Over time, the tale grows in the telling, until you have "courts" and Kings and Queens."

To add to the confusion, named fey are sometimes Gods and Goddesses, especially in Celtic tradition. So basically you have different cultures viewing these beings differently.

What you are dealing with is the evolution of a folk tradition in various societies, and with the merging of these societies you get a real stew. One that is still growing, and has been since the dawn of humankind. Getting down to the real nitty gritty takes a lot of research, and not just from fairy stories. The people who ("believe" is a bad word, let's try "suspect") there is something behind all this, think that most likely mixing and matching doesn't really matter, because it's all the same thing, unless you're writing a book on anthropology. ;)

But if you do want to be culture-specific, your take on the Anglo Saxon and Celtic definitions are more or less correct, for that group of people, as a religious or literary tradition, at a point in time. Beyond that, it is one of many. And, like religion, it is the human way of trying to understand something that remains beyond our understanding. most of us, anyway.

My apologies to anyone who knows better.

Edited by: Van45us at: 9/25/07 10:19 pm
Terri Windling
Registered User
(9/26/07 2:31 am)


Re: Elves and Fairies
As for the terms "elves" and "fairies," I believe in the English language the term "elf" is the older one. It was originally used for creatures of magic ranging from nature spirits of many shapes to magical beings in human form. The word "fairy" comes from the fata of Italy by way of the fee of France, appearing in the English language as fairy or faery. (Both spellings are historically correct.) The term fairy was applied to the same wide range of creatures as elf (its usage varying regionally), and, in many places, supplanted the use of the word elf altogether.

I'm no expert on Irish folklore (so if someone out there is, please correct me if I'm wrong), but the Irish language term for fairies is the sidhe. The use of the word fairy in Ireland would have come to Ireland, I assume, with the country's colonization by English language speakers. Likewise, Wales, Cornwall, and Scotland all have different terms for the fey in their own languages.

Complicating the whole language issue is that fairy lore varies greatly from region to region in the United Kingdom. One most often encounters the use of collective terms like "elves," "fairies," "faeries," or "the fey" in epic literature and courtly ballads (the Arthurian cycle and The Ballad of Tam Lin, for example) -- in other words, in stories for the upper classes. Peasant folktales of the countryside, by contrast, often refer to fairies by specific type: goblins, piskies, nixies, etc., with the names varying from region to region. And in some places it was considered unlucky or dangerous to name them at all, and they were referred to only by warily respectful euphemisms such The Good Folk or The Good Neighbors.

As other people here have said, the divisions of fairies into courts and hierarchies varies wildly from country to country and region to region -- you won't find any overall agreement. And unless I'm misreading your post, it sounds like you are trying to reconcile the folk traditions of several different countries. England, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, and Ireland all have different languages and different (if overlapping) histories, mythologies, and fairy folklore traditions. The people native to Scotland, Wales, Cornwall and Ireland don't think of themselves as English (or as United Kingdomers) and would resist being catagorized as a homogonous group.

If you haven't come across
it already, Thomas Keightley's The Fairy Mythology (first published in the 19th century) is a good look at the wide range of fairy beliefs in England and continental Europe. There are other reference books listed at the end of this article about fairies that also might be helpful. Good luck!


P.S.: Have you read Kingdoms of Elfin by the English writer Sylvia Townsend Warner? These are delightful stories (first published in The New Yorker, of all places) set in a variety of "fairy courts" in the U.K. and France.

Edited by: Terri Windling at: 9/26/07 3:33 am

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