Faeries Part II

All the flurry that surrounded my last post on the topic has set me musing on what we do and don't know about these legendary creatures. And I guess the final and only conclusion you can come to at this point is that we plain don't know. Which is why I've begun to dislike the angels&demons theory so strongly. It feels to me as though there's a fundamental human tendency to deny that there is anything in this world or universe that can't be explained. It's as though because God did not impart any revelation on faeries, they either cannot exist, or must exist within the context of what He has revealed. Nothing could be farther from the truth (in my opinion). In point of fact, if humans were the only intelligent life form (besides angels) that God created; if earth was the only habitable planet in the universe; if scientists do indeed end up mapping and charting the entire universe; I would be extremely disappointed. If there's no mystery or wonder left it does make everything a bit bleaker...kind of a "this is it?" feeling. So I'm going to discuss all that I know about faeries; material gleaned solely from myths, folktales, and legends. And while we're at it, I have to emphasize once again how important the element of human contact is in these stories. I have found in every myth cycle I've ever read, the gods that cultures came up with rarely had direct contact with humans. The one glaring exception to this is, of course, the Grecian mythology. There we have gods talking with, marrying, destroying, helping, and interfering with humans 24/7. However, the Greeks did not in fact have any traditions of faeries. The closest thing in the Greek tradition would be a nymph, nyad or dryad. Now take Norse, Irish, Native American, or Japanese mythology. Whenever the gods are the subject of a story, it is mainly to explain a natural phenomenon (lighting, seasons, weather, natural disasters, etc.) or develop a story cycle around them. Thus the Norse gods' activity is (as far as I've ever read) confined to themselves and Valhalla (aka home sweet home). The same holds true for the other cultures listed. What makes faeries different? Because in all stories concerning them, they are (for good or evil) interfering in human affairs. Now that we've come to this, it's time to talk about some pretty intriguing conclusions that we can try to draw from the spotty knowledge we have of them. A question I hear often is: do faeries have souls? Obviously no one has any idea, but the question is very interesting regarding what information we do have on them. Take for instance the fact that they are seldom if ever bound by the laws of nature or physics. They don't necessarily fall if thrown into the air (also known as HE CAN FLY!!!), they can fit into small spaces, grow and shrink at will, and do not age. This is all in direct contrast to humans, who live according to a very strict set of rules that involve gravity, aging, and physical matter. The same applies to the effects of time on these guys. To us, time is pretty much a constant; it moves at the same pace, is predictable, and can be charted. Not so with faeries. Read any story of a human spirited away to some faerie kingdom, and you find that one night dancing with the fair folk can translate into several hundred human years when the guest comes back to the human world. Even that isn't consistent; sometimes seven days over there is seven years here, and sometimes a single night there is three hundred years over here. For those of you who have read Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, her footnotes and statements on faeries are very much in the British and Irish tradition ( that being the tradition with the most information on the subject). Most telling ( I think ) in her book is the statement that humans are most rational and unmagical; while faeries are most irrational and magical. This would seem to be confirmed by any conversation recounted betweeen a faerie and a human. From a human point of view, most faeries' answers and/or question are random, schizophrenic, and suggestive of ADD. As far as anyone can tell, faeries just are not linear thinkers...which fits with everything else told about them: their, well, inhuman, view of death (which includes amusement, delight, and plain curiosity at times), the fact that the laws of nature by which we abide has little to no affect on them, the fact that their affections are so capricious and inexplicable, and their (what we call) magical prowess. Perhaps the best concept of "fairy land" is the Irish Tir nan-Og, which holds that the land in which the faeries live is sort of a parallel universe; such that we exist nearly on top of each other, with only brief and infrequent glimpses into this other world. It makes sense to me, at any rate. That somehow outside (in an indefinable way) this material world exists another one which we can't and couldn't explain or understand because in every fundamental way it is so radically different.


Father Barry said...

Why would you say that the "angel & demon theory" explains everything? Or even explains anything?

Do angels and demons make you feel like the world is bleak or without wonder? Or that "this is it?" Seems to me that they suggest quite the contrary. They remind us of how little we know, even when we "know."

Oh, and don't worry. Scientists will not end up mapping and charting the entire universe. Won't happen. That's part of why it's so wonderful.

Relativity is about he miraculous and inexplicable way in which reality retains its tenuous grasp on...well...reality. And that's straight science.

Wonder has to do with how you think of things, not with what you're thinking about. An absolutely logical "thinking-machine-Holmes-like" person can have tons of wonder. The more you discover for sure, the more you realize you don't know.

I love your account of Tir nan-Og. I'm just not at all sure we need parallel universes to explain it. (And I'm still not sure you're right about non-Greek myths. Especially Norse ones. Valkyrie, remember?)

- J.

Catherine_Creagan said...

Valkyrie come and get people once they're DEAD.
and the angels&demons thing...not that it explains everything, but because it's applying something we already know about to something we want to explain. which I find irritating. besides; there is no way any fairy in any fairy story could be an angel or a demon. but maybe I'm relying to much on St Thomas here.

of course I know scientists can't map the universe. I was saying IF they did, then I would be bummed.

and the parallel universe...well, it isn't at all the right expression. I was trying to convey the sense of Pat O'Shea's explanation in Hounds of the Morrigan. I love that.

Father Barry said...

I guess I was referring to the fact that Brunhilda is "forced to become mortal," and has a fair amount of human interaction - The Ring Cycle, and the like. (Hence, semi-supporting my contention that the Norse gods are shown as interacting with humans on a somewhat regular basis.)

And I continue to object to your suggestion that explaining fairies with angels or demons is an example of "applying something we know to something we want to explain."

We know very little about the angels, really. We know they exist, and we understand in an intellectual way what sort of things they are, but that's nearly it. What we do know is that there are a vast throng of them. And that they are all utterly unique: each angel (and demon) is its own species.

"Hence it must be said that the angels, even inasmuch as they are immaterial substances, exist in exceeding great number, far beyond all material multitude. This is what Dionysius says (Coel. Hier. xiv): 'There are many blessed armies of the heavenly intelligences, surpassing the weak and limited reckoning of our material numbers.'"

I simply can't see why it's taking the easy way out to assign some of these "exceeding great numbers" to faeries.

And I still can't see what St. Thomas says that would prevent the fairy tales from being about angels and/or demons, but perhaps we're speaking at cross-purposes. Could you flesh that claim out a bit?


sarah said...

Catherine said: "it's applying something we already know about to something we want to explain"

What the heck else are you supposed to do? Learning is going from the more known to the less known, not the unknown to the unknown.

Not that angels (after all, demons are angels too) are exactly known...

Ben said...

Dionysius the Areopagite!! I love that guy. Ahem. (mostly because his pinky shows up in Hellboy). I also kinda geeked out when he turned up in Acts too.

Anyway...I don't see why Fairies wouldn't have souls, at least in the sense of an animating principal of some sort. I mean, if they're alive in any way, and not robots or something, then they have to have a soul don't they?

I tend to go by the assumption that fairies, if they exist, are just seriously weird or overprotective guardian angels of forests of regions or what not. I don't see any reason that they couldn't be some other species though. I tend to think that the universe is much weirder than most people care to admit, so if I belive in telepaths, why not fairies? Though the exact nature of magic would still need some explaining.

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