Fairies in the “Fairy Way”

Chapter and Verse is a series that features JHU Press authors and editors discussing the literary landscape of poetry and prose, whether their own creative work or the literature of others.

Guest post by Kevin Pask

The “fairy way of writing” is a phrase that came into currency with the English writer Joseph Addison in the early eighteenth century. Like others before me, I have adopted it for my own purposes, which only lightly touched on the world of children’s fairy stories. Nevertheless, I did some additional “research” into the world of the children’s fairies with my two daughters, Emma and Violet, who were young children when the book project that became The Fairy Way of Writing began.

I don’t remember having a particular interest in fairies as a child. In fact, I remember having a strong taste for children’s historical fiction. I was particularly fond of the We Were There series of historical fictions for children, and my copy of Strange But True Football Stories was well-thumbed. I don’t remember actually reading the old fairy tales. What I do remember is all the many ways in which mass media had absorbed and restructured those tales for children. My own favorite was the “Fractured Fairy Tales” that appeared on The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. From an early age, maybe around nine or ten, I became a reader of Tolkien, and that, rather than more traditional fairy stories, was my entry into fantasy. I even remember going into my sister’s room to listen to my mother read it aloud after I had already read the books for the first time.

Why do girls gravitate more than boys to the domain of fairy? My older daughter, Emma, had the Sky Dancer toy that was supposed to be wound up and, fairy-like, fly around the room. I don’t remember that it ever successfully did more than collide with the nearest large object, but that didn’t stop us from following the TV show, Sky Dancers, that had apparently been developed around the toy, and which featured the fearless Queen Skyla and her Sky Dancers battling against the wicked Sky-Clone, who had killed her husband, King Skyler. The entire Sky Dynasty was itself deposed—and after only one season!—by the arrival of new regulations for more “informative” children’s programming in the United States.

Emma was also a reader of L. Frank Baum’s Oz books, which prominently featured the role of girls, sometimes girls who were also boys. (Baum was the son-in-law of the prominent feminist activist Matilda Joslyn Gage.) Violet became a devoted reader of the Fairy Realm series, by the Australian writer Emily Rodda, a children’s series that transplants the “fairies at the bottom of the garden” to an Australian setting. Some of the books in the series sported sparkly covers. Both Sky Dancers and Fairy Realm were clearly marketed to girls.

The fairy, or the fairy princess has become part of the girl’s rite of passage. I still possess, in my office, Violet’s nursery school drawing of four butterflies charmingly floating between flowers and clouds, which her teacher has helpfully labeled with Violet’s own description: “The four fairyflies are watching the clouds go by.” In another drawing from the same period, Violet had drawn a picture of a window looking out into the night world to illustrate a wish: “I wish I was magical.”

The fairy queen, I think, still lies somewhere in the background of the ongoing romance of the fairy world. In medieval legend, the fairy queen could be dangerous as well as seductive. The older fairies were not, of course, uniquely female, but the legend of the fairy enchantress has been the part of the fairy domain that most successfully survived in the modern world. The erotic side of this legend is readily accessible. Just do a Google Image search for “fairies,” and you will encounter the full range of both childhood and eroticized fairies. Domesticated as they often are, they still carry something of a specifically feminine power that has survived into our own time.

pask.Kevin Pask is an associate professor of English at Concordia University and is author of  The Fairy Way of Writing: Shakespeare to Tolkien, published by Johns Hopkins University Press, and The Emergence of the English Author: Scripting the Life of the Poet in Early Modern England.