Sometimes — like, maybe, right now — you want to escape to another, better world. But is Fairyland it? Emerging from the mist of British folk tales and beliefs, the Fae did not always resemble the cute winged creatures in Disney’s “Peter Pan.” Elves, boggarts and Robin Goodfellows, they were known to steal babies, curdle milk and lure mortals into their ethereal realm: those unlucky humans discovered that one night of revelry in Elfland lasted years in our world, so that when they returned all those they loved were dead. The 1590s saw the fairies enter the realm of high literature, both in William Shakespeare’s comedy “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” which introduced the immortal Titania, Oberon and Puck, and in Edmund Spenser’s epic poem, “The Faerie Queene.”
It was the Victorians who both reinvented fairies and brought them into the modern world. Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, championed the Cottingley Fairies photographs. Taken by young cousins Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths in 1917, they purported to show the girls surrounded by tiny winged fairies. And everyone remembers Tinker Bell in J.M. Barry’s “Peter and Wendy,” but not her fate. When asked by Wendy what happened to Tinker Bell, Peter is callous. “There are such a lot of them,” he tells Wendy. “I expect she is no more.”
In centuries of tales, from Morgan le Fay and Avalon in the Arthurian cycle to contemporary fantasies to Disney movies, fairies and their mysterious world have captured the imagination. So where should one start to explore?
Lavie: Two recent novels that really impressed me were Zen Cho’s “Sorcerer to the Crown” and Jeannette Ng’s “Under the Pendulum Sun.” Both take an age-old trope and explore it from the perspective of writers from former British colonies (Cho is originally from Malaysia, Ng from Hong Kong). Cho’s novel somehow manages to be a frothy, hilarious romance resembling Wodehouse at times while also offering a pointed critique of British colonialism — it’s quite a feat. And Ng’s gothic romance is incredibly high concept — it posits, “what if the British Empire discovered Fairyland — and promptly sent missionaries there?” The result is not at all what you’d expect, but would have made even that old Gothic Horace Walpole happy. Think “Flowers in the Attic” with fairies!
The big modern novel of Fairyland (and one that clearly inspired Cho) is of course Susanna Clarke’s “Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell,” a huge, sprawling and enthralling adventure that is a meditation on the very notions of Englishness, otherness and magic. I loved it when it first came out. But were I to pick one standout in a crowded field, I think Hope Mirrlees’s “Lud-in-the-Mist,” first published in 1926, truly is magical. It’s about a town on the border of Faerie, whose rather peculiar residents smuggle Goblin Fruit out of Fairyland while denying its very existence. It’s a strange, enchanting novel.
Silvia: “The Way of Thorn and Thunder” collects Daniel Heath Justice’s trilogy of fantasy novels (“Kynship,” “Wyrwood” and “Dreyd”) into a single volume. It presents a secondary-world fantasy where the forest-dwelling Eld-Folk are inspired by Cherokee culture. Their struggle against the forces of Man serves as both a postcolonialist critique and a new spin on classic fantasy in the mold of “Lord of the Rings” or “Elfquest.”
“The Changeling” by Victor LaValle uses as its inspiration the stories of changelings, false doubles left in place of human children who are stolen by fairies. Fairy tales can be dark spaces and LaValle’s tale is more horror than Disney, as it weaves a tale of parenthood and violence. It also marries together the real and the fantastic so well that by the time the protagonist tumbles down the rabbit hole it seems not shocking but inevitable. Fairy tales, after all, follow certain beats. While “The Changeling” is told from the point of view of a distraught father, “The Stolen Child” by Keith Donohue is narrated by both the human child and the changeling, and it serves as a melancholic meditation on adulthood.
Another title worth mentioning is “Midnight Never Come” by Marie Brennan, in which Elizabeth I’s court is mirrored by another queen, this one of a Fairyland located beneath London. There are, of course, many retellings of fairy tales, from Angela Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber” to recent fantasy reworkings, but those are best left for another column. I do suspect that if they film that sequel to “Labyrinth” that was recently announced, we may see a fresh wave of books about Fairyland and mortals slipping into other realms. In the meantime, we’ll all just have to do the “Magic Dance.”
Silvia Moreno-Garcia is the author of the novels “Gods of Jade and Shadow,” “Signal to Noise” and, most recently, “Untamed Shore.” Lavie Tidhar is the author of several novels, including “The Violent Century,” “A Man Lies Dreaming,” “Central Station” and “Unholy Land.”
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