The Beautiful Other: or, Why I Write about Faeries

I went to look up this essay tonight and found that the page where it was originally posted had been deleted, so I dug it out of my e-mails so I’d have a copy of it SOMEWHERE on the web that I could link to. Here it is, slightly revised and updated from its original format.

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When Shveta Thakrar​ asked me to participate in her “Three Days of Fey” blog series, I was delighted to accept. But what to talk about? So much has been said about faeries already, by authors far more dedicated to and knowledgeable about the subject. Did I really have anything new to add?

But then I looked back at some of the previous posts by other faery book authors, and realized that I might be coming at this topic from a rather different angle after all.

You see, what interests me about faeries, or at least what led me to write my own faery book, is not their immortality, or their unearthly beauty, or their power, or their inhuman cruelty and caprice. All those elements are certainly present in the lore about faeries, and other authors have written compelling books based on those faery traits. But I wasn’t interested in exploring what faeries are and have, so much as what they aren’t and haven’t.

As a child and teenager, most of the faery-related stories I read were about humans being charmed or abducted or otherwise drawn into contact with faeries, and the faeries were seen through a very mystical lens as these beautiful, dangerous Others. I’d also seen faeries portrayed as frivolous, silly creatures, like Tinker Bell. But they always seemed to be viewed from the outside, through human eyes, and I found myself wondering about the faery’s perspective. How might the human world, with all the aspects of daily life we take for granted, appear to a faery who’d never seen it before?

New US cover for KnifeThe more I thought about this idea, the more I liked it. I was especially drawn to the possibility that faeries might be just as fearful of, and fascinated by, humans as humans have traditionally been of them. What would the first encounter with a human being be like for a faery? What would she find shocking, or frightening, or enticing about us?

Obviously the idea of faeries being afraid of humans is easier to understand if there’s a size difference, so I quickly settled on the idea of writing about small, winged faeries in the Victorian mold (though the idea of faeries as tiny humans with wings didn’t actually start with the Victorians: as Melissa Marr has pointed out, you can find something similar in the Welsh legends of the Ellylon). But small faeries can easily come across as twee, and I didn’t want that. So as an antidote I decided my faery heroine would be dangerous in a purely physical sense: not some delicate child-woman dressed in gossamer and flitting about on butterfly wings, but a fierce, deadly assassin who could maneuver like a fighter jet, and take on enemies twice or three times her size.

But here the logical part of my brain raised an objection. Why would a faery need to develop those kinds of fighting skills if she could just as easily defeat her enemies with magic? The answer was, of course, to remove the magic. Which then handily supplied me with one of the most important elements of the plot, as my heroine sets out to discover what happened to her people’s lost magic and try to get it back.

Even so, I didn’t just want to write a story about vulnerable little faeries vs. scary giant humans. Somehow my heroine’s natural fear and hostility toward a potential predator had to develop over the course of the story into a powerful attraction, similar to the allure that Faeryland and its inhabitants have traditionally held for humanity. 

And here I found that far from having to turn the old fairy tales on their head, my ideas were actually confirmed by them. Time and again in the folk tales we find out that the beauties of Faeryland are only an illusion, that its riches turn into withered leaves by the light of day, or even that the faeries themselves are hollow inside. The ordinary world, for all its flaws, is far more meaningful and real, and the human traveler enticed away by the faeries eventually finds himself longing for home.

REBEL - New US Cover

So ultimately, Knife and its sequels Rebel and Arrow are not about the perilous beauties of some enticing magical realm and its inhabitants so much as about finding the magic and the wonder in our own human world – discovering, in essence, that we are the Beautiful Other. Which is not to say that our existence in this life is idyllic, or anything like it. But there’s a dignity and value in being human, “made in the image of God” as the Bible puts it, that’s worth celebrating, even though as humans we often fail to appreciate that and yearn for immortality, or stunning beauty, or magical power, or all the other kinds of things that faeries represent to us.

I couldn’t have explored that idea nearly as effectively through the eyes of a vampire or a werewolf or a zombie or a ghost, because all of those creatures were once human themselves, and the human world comes as no surprise to them. My heroine needed to be from a race similar enough to humans to be plausibly interested in them, yet different enough to see them through fresh and wondering eyes.

And that’s why I write about faeries.

– © R.J. Anderson, 2009 / 2020. All rights reserved.

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