with Charlotte Bond, Victoria Leslie, Emma Newman, Mike Shevdon, and Alison Littlewood (mod)
More particularly I became convinced that much of the folk-lore of the world is but an exaggerated account of events that really happened, and I was especially drawn to consider the stories of the fairies, the good folk of the Celtic races. Here, I thought I could detect the fringe of embroidery and exaggeration, the fantastic guise, the little people dressed in green and gold sporting in the flowers, and I thought I saw a distinct analogy between the name given to this race (supposed to be imaginary) and the description of their appearance and manners. Just as our remote ancestors called the dreaded beings ‘fair’ and ‘good’ precisely because they dreaded them, so they had dressed them up in charming forms, knowing the truth to be the very reverse. - Arthur Machen, The Three ImpostersMachen said that faeries were called the "good folk" out of respect, rather than because they are good, says Alison Littlewood, so what is your vision of them? Charlotte Bond's first impressions were from the book Faeries by Brian Fround and Alan Lee, the pictures making as much of an impression as the stories, especially of Jenny Greenteeth. From there, she moved to Angela Carter's fairytales in The Bloody Chamber and thence to Pratchett's elves in Lords and Ladies: “Elves are wonderful. They provoke wonder. Elves are marvellous. They cause marvels. Elves are fantastic. They create fantasies. Elves are glamorous. They project glamour. Elves are enchanting. They weave enchantment. Elves are terrific. They beget terror."
Emma Newman likewise wanted to make her elves terrifying, not fluffy. Even Tinkerbell, she reminds us, was nasty. The fae destroying lives fascinates her - they're ethereal, beautiful, merciless and destructive. They have an alien mindeset: they see the world entirely differently to us, with terrifying results. In her Split Worlds trilogy and stories, she enjoys that pairing of beauty and horror.
Mike Shevdon's fae are also not evil or good, just different. They live in the bowels of tube stations, in the edges, in the dreams of humans. They're more place than person - for instance, the ring in the glade which you can't leave without shedding blood...He's influenced strongly by English folklore: the danger, the overnight feast which results in everyone dying, the bargains turning sour not out of malice but because the fey just don't work like that.
Victoria Leslie responds to the organic, the sense of creatures embedded in landscape - for example, the Shetland trows, who live in mounds and play pranks. She's influenced by Graham Joyce, especially his take on the tooth fairy - which again, returns to the organic.
Littlewood suggests that one aspect of them is as characters that aren't really seen, of which the oral tradition has many variants. Her current work in progress involves researching beliefs in the fae across history, and each time it returns to that: they're not good, they're simply indifferent. They have their own agenda, hence the risk.
Newman suggests that's the root of why why they exist in human consciousness - as a form of protection, in a way. For instance, the knockers in Cornish mines, a kind of pixie whose knocking presaged a cave-in. There's an element of trying to anthropomorphise the terrifying, random chance of death or horror in people's lives, to ascribe meaning to randomness. It is easier to be supersitious than to believe in chaos. Littlewood agrees that it offers an illusion of control, and as Shevdon points out, part of grieving is bargains. Bargaining features heavily in dealings with the fey and yet, as in grief, they rarely keep their side of the bargain as expected.
Littlewood extends this idea to how the mythical lands are often seen as akin to the land of the dead, for instance, someone saying that she saw her grandfather with the fairies. It mingles religion and folklore. Leslie adds that in Victorian times, children were thought to be able to see fairies, a lost innocence that escapes adults. As Shevdon notes, the Victorians tried to repacakage fairies for children. At a time of increasing systematisation and mechanisation, they were harking back to spirituality, to an Arcadian age, as much in fairytales as in the spiritualism that grew increasingly popular with adults.
This, Newman says, is also part of retaining a cultural identity. Every storyteller scared of homogenisation of culture exaggerates the national identiy of folklore. Oral tradition is elevated to represent culture. For example, she feels fiercely proud of Cornish folklore, as if it's somehow hers - both belonging to her and a credit to her. That said, a mash-up of different folklores can feel very fresh.
In Victorian times, Littlewood adds, the railways chased away the fairies - industrialisation killed them, and so there is that strong sense in which the fae are nature spirits. However, in urban paranormal stories, there's a new wave of fae invading cities. How then does everyone see the landscapes of the faie?
In Newman's Split Worlds trilogy, she has three domains: the human world, the fae world, and between the two, a shadowy world. The fae world, Exilium, she sees as a platonic ideal of countryside, very much a construct and all fake: it's a prison. This intersects with the real world and the place in between (the Nether) via feuding families, who are puppets of the fae. She twists the ideas of going between realms, but imposes rules - as people do. The human world, which is also reflected in the Nether, is the city of Bath. She's fascinated by urban landscapes holding memories and different versions of one place (in her books, the same place across different realms).
Shevdon's work is set in London. He likes merging rituals and superstition - for instance, iron has long been held as an anathema to the fae, shown in rituals such as jumping over an iron anvil to show you're real! Since the thirteenth century, we have had a ceremony of presenting to the queen six horseshoes, then sixty-one nails, in return for properties:
The Exchequer Court is reconstituted every year for the three ancient ceremonies of the "Rendering of the Quit Rents to the Crown" by the City of London at the Royal Courts of Justice.Every year they pay with the same horseshoes and nails! So why do we do this? Shevdon's written his own explanation of this.Newman adds to this the place of ironsmiths in folklore, as people who made magic, and Sehvdon adds that you could be maried by a smith.
The oldest dates from 1211, where the City pays service for two pieces of land, The Moors near Bridgnorth in Shropshire, for which the City must pay two knives, one blunt and one sharp.
The second oldest has been made, entered in the Great Roll of the Exchequer, since 1235, for 'The Forge' (forge) in Tweezer's Alley, just south of St Clement's Dane, near the Strand in London, for which the City must pay six horseshoes and 61 horseshoe nails - over 550 years old, since after being rendered to the Queen’s Remembrancer they are preserved in his Office, and with the permission of the Crown they are loaned to the Corporation of London to be rendered again the following year.
Leslie uses a modern setting which pivots on the river and a Victorian setting, drawing on the feminine associations with water and the female Victorian suicides, when throwing oneself into the river was so commonplace that an entire job was created for a policeman to patrol the rivers and provent suicides. This was romanticised too, of course - the Victorians had a fascination with dead women (we still do!) whether Ophelia, Melusine, or the Selkies. She tries to explore the influx of that fascination. Elizabeth Siddell nearly died of pneumonia, from modelling for Millais's Ophelia in a cold bath of water, and like Opheila, Siddell herself later committed suicide. Littlewood suggests that the justaposition of death and madness also possibly relates to the madness of seeing the fey.
In Bond's work, fae can't enter houses, cars, and so forth, which is a useful constraint. She references Julie Kagawa's series, the Iron Fey, in which to update the fey Kagawa has them also as the gremlins of the modern age. Bond sees them both as nature spirits and as chaos. She struggles to have them in other, more modern / less natural places - they are more, she feels, like the sensation of being watched in a wood. In the countryside, says Littlewood, you're isolated, away from systems - anything can happen. Newman picks up on this nature and chaos as being exactly not good or evil, like the fey. Nature is beautiful, and red in tooth and claw. She relates watching a David Attenborough film with her child and being dismayed at the death of a baby gillamot - but her child piped up, "But his babies have to eat too and they're just as good!" We try to impose our own moral compass on a world to which it simply doesn't apply, both in nature and with the fey. There's a fungus that can infect an ant, take over its brain, control it as a zombie, and then when it's done with the ant, literally make the ant's head explode. To us, the stuff of horror and evil - but it is what it is. Bond suggests this is the perfect metaphor for the fey: they are the predators of humanity. You might best them, or you might be the gillamot that got got.
Having a chance against the fey raises a question familiar to all inventors of magic: constraints. What constraints do they each put on their fey's power?
Shevdon notes that the real world needs constraints as much as magic - the advent of mobile phones, for instance, created huge upheaval in crime fiction! Everyone could simply phone for help. [Until, I suppose, the advent of smartphones, when everyone can simply phone for help provided it's before about 4pm and they haven't used their phone for any actual calls yet.] He tries to come up with creative constraints - for instance, energy has to come from somewhere. It's easy to drain it from a battery, but hard to get out the ground. Similarly, the question of why no-one knows about the fey: it's because they're adapting. As a London commuter, he was amazed by what people didn't see. It's easy enough for the fey to adapt to that! Newman agrees that the urban survival technique of shutting down helps with that, and Littlewood comments that it's a great use of reailty. In Shevdon's stories, fey can also adapt their appearance - but the more they adapt it, the harder it is to sustain, again allowing for an in-built constraint.
Newman reminds us that constraints are useful - it nuzzles up to internal consistency, logical consequences. One needs a firm idea of the background metaphysics. She compares it to role-play game-mastering. All writers have way more notes on the world than the reader will ever see, more information than the reader will ever find out, to create that consistency and plausability. She has masses of maps and notes for the Split Worlds - but this is not work, this is the fun stuff!
A hard constraint, says Newman, is the best opportunity to do something fun with it. For example, she needed to find a way to police the fae - which led to the question, how does their magic work? To know how to stop it, we need to know that first. Well, it works on people's souls. Okay, so the police need to have no soul... Constraint leads you to unexpected creations, as well as to unexpected parallels (the traditionally soulless hard-bitten policeman).
Bond points out that in traditional fairytales, words are key, especially promises. In modern times, though, why wouldn't one simply get it written, signed, and witnessed? Fairytales were ways to learn about danger - for instance, Little Red Riding Hood and the wolf - and now those can feel redundant and irrelevant; they are not the dangers we need to learn. For those to come alive, we need to get back to primal fears, such as hunger in the woods at night. Littlewood agrees. She remembers being on a tiny Shetland island, its only connection to the mainland the ferry, and suddenly all that stuff was real again: the weather, the early dark, having a poor mobile signal and being cut off... They use a term, she says, "a feyness", for something that's a bit weird, and which can also be an apparition of someone as a prelude to their death. Superstitions still hold there which a city sensibility struggles with. As for cautionary tales, says Newman, we have our own time's fears, for example, of one's child being taken away, and those narratives are played out in the media.
Such fears were also played out in older times, via the fey, through stories of changelings - which, Littlewood comments, are akin to possession stories. Bond notes that in history they were used as a social concept, for example to assuage the guilt of exposing a sickly child - "It wasn't really my child, it was a fairy babe!" Some records show young girls claiming the faery king got them pregnant - again, an excuse both for becoming pregnant, and for getting rid of the fairy child. Her own story focuses on the remaining children. In Newman's stories, a woman is punished for excessively loving her child by having the child swapped. There's a psychological interchange, she says, between tales of changelings and post-partum depression, which is very deep-rooted.
We may need the good folk, still, to make sense of things beyond the capacity of our hearts or beliefs. We may call them the "good" folk, but they are not good. Like life, they are beautiful, and indifferent.
This panel discussion was reassembled from my own hasty scribblings at FantasyCon. If I've got anyone's words or details wrong, please let me know and I'll correct them forthwith. You can see the full list of panels to be posted here and you can subscribe for updates at the top right of the blog. You can also browse previous cons: FantasyCon 2014 and World Fantasy Con 2013.