Playing Fast and Loose with Fairy Myths in Rare Flower


I have a new book out today! This is the first time in about a year I’m releasing something new, which means I’m pretty hyped up.

This is also a project that has taken literal years to come to fruition. Rare Flower was something I started in spring 2021. It was originally slated to come out last fall, but life events forced me to bump the book. (And life events forced me to cancel most of the promo and stuff I was hoping to do.)

Rare Flower took a long time to iron out because I played fast and loose with several different mythological traditions. Today, I’m going to look at one of those influences: fairy myths.

What’s “Fae”?

Fae is simply another word for fairy, a word that has a complex etymology. Though the name changes—and many other names exist—the idea remains relatively the same.

Generally speaking, fairies are another “race” of humanoid creatures that inhabit a parallel, mythological realm. This is usually the realm of Faery. Fairies can inhabit the earthly plane, though, often coming through the veil via fairy rings.

An oil painting of a blonde, Caucasian girl with a crown of butterflies resting on her flowing ringlets. In the background, the viewer can see her translucent butterfly wings, telling us she is a fairy.
Sophie Anderson’s 1860s painting captures most modern ideas about fairies.

The origins of fairy myths are complex. The idea of fairies seems to have roots in an ancient race who inhabited Ireland and Scotland before the Celts. These people were driven “underground” or into barrows, where they still dwell. They possess powerful magic, and you do not want to cross them.

Living in barrows might make them similar to ghosts or wights. Fairies sometimes share a malevolent streak with these mythological creatures. Living underground might make them kin to dwarves, who, in turn, are sometimes thought to be related to elves. There is a line between fairies and elves in Germanic mythological traditions.

Fairies by Any Other Name

Other mythological traditions contain creatures that could be considered fairies or fairy-like. The Asturian xanas, for example, almost perfectly map onto the Celtic fairy myths. In Nordic traditions, we also see gnomes, who are similarly magical and sometimes malevolent forces. In Sweden, for example, you want a tomte to protect your house. If you feed this house gnome its favorite foods (often porridge with butter), then it will protect your home. If you cross it, though, it may allow bad things to happen or bad luck might follow you.

Fairies are very similar: you don’t want to cross one. In some cases, they are simply tricksters; in others, they are cruel and malevolent masters. Making friends with them is usually a good idea; crossing them is not. There’s a reason most Irish people will tell you that you do not fuck with the fae.

In fact, some people won’t even call them by name. They might refer to them as “other folk,” “the fair folk,” or some other eponym.

Modern Conceptions of Fairies

Until about the nineteenth century, the idea of a fairy was relatively varied. In some versions of the myth, they were small humanoids. In other versions, we might class them as spirits or wights.

During the Victorian era, the idea of fairies as small, winged humanoids became more prevalent. This is our modern conception of fairies.

The idea of a fairy as a nature spirit has be present for a long time. They have almost always possessed some sort of magic. Today, they have close associations with woodlands and meadows, where mushrooms might grow and they may dance in fairy rings.

Fairy Myths in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance

Fairies as malevolent forces has a long tradition. The Faerie Queen by Edmund Spenser is a good example, written in Elizabethan England. William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night Dream includes fairy characters who wreak havoc upon unsuspecting humans, although they aren’t entirely malevolent.

Perhaps the most common fairy myths is that of the changeling. In these medieval myths, parents would sometimes suggest their child was “a changeling.” Their supposedly human child had been swapped at birth by the fairies, leaving them a fairy baby to raise while their human baby was whisked off to Faery.

Modern Conceptions of Fairy Myths

Modern folklorists suggest tales of this sort could function as explanations for neurodiversity. For example, a child with ADHD may have exhibited “differences” that led to the suggestion that they were a fairy child. People took precautions to ward off fairies, so that their children would be safe.

An image showing Disney's Tinkerbell, sitting down on a flower with her hands on her hips and a scowl on her face.
Disney’s Tinkerbell is maybe the best example of a “malevolent” fairy in modernity.

More malevolent stories of people becoming lost in the woods, trapped in fairy rings, or even whisked off to Faery and danced to death also exist. In the 1800s, stories about changelings and encounters with fairies became more common.

Today, we often forget the “malevolent” side of fairies, depicting them as tiny, ethereal humanoid women. Instead, they usually bestow good fortune upon people. Perhaps the most “malevolent” fairy in modern stories is Tinkerbell, who exhibits jealousy and pettiness.

The Scottish Fairy Courts

As interest in fairy folklore has risen, thanks in part to books like Sara J. Maas’s A Court of Thorns and Roses, more people have adopted the idea of fairy “courts.”

This part of fairy folklore is distinctly Scottish. Within Scottish tales, the fair folk are divided into at least two courts: the seelie court and the unseelie court.

Fairies associated with the seelie court are usually pleasant and helpful, although they may engage in trickery. Fairies of the unseelie court are particularly malevolent, and humans should avoid them at all costs.

Modern Uses of the Scottish Courts

Modern writers have translated “seelie” and “unseelie” into the summer and winter courts, or, occasionally, the spring and autumn courts. (Indeed, some writers include four courts, using “seelie” and “unseelie” as overarching categories.) Generally, seelie and unseelie just mean “good” and “bad” fairies. You still need to approach good fairies with caution, although their tricks usually result in no lasting harm. Bad fairies can and will hurt you.

Most modern writers dispense with the idea of “good” and “bad” as strict categories. In fact, members of the “unseelie” court might be “bad” or “monstrous,” but they are often revealed to be misunderstood. In some cases, writers invert the dichotomy. The “bad” fairies only have a “bad” rap because the “good” fairies have been trash-talking them.

Whether the writer keeps the fairies as tiny winged creatures or, more often, makes them human-size depends in part on the role of the fairy characters. If they’re serving as a love interest, then in most cases they’ll be “human-size.” In that case, they might end up seeming more like elves. The dichotomy between “good” and “bad” might be akin to the Norse division between “light” and “dark” elves — sometimes interpreted as a divide between elves and dwarves. This may also accompany a division between “good” and “bad,” or helpful and malevolent. In some cases, it also suggests different dwelling places: the “bad” elves or fairies might live underground.

Fairies in Rare Flower

I adopted fairy myths, in part to please Editor. Editor is a big fan of fairies and fae folklore. More often than not, though, she’s disappointed by how modern authors opt to handle that mythology. In fact, one of her gripes about many modern “monster” stories is how often the mythological creatures are just humans with sparkling skin or wings pasted on.

Fairies, Nymphs, and Other Nature Deities

For the fairies in Rare Flower, though, I took inspiration from the idea that fairies are really just “nature deities,” which are similar across many mythological traditions. We can draw a line between fairies and the Spanish xanas, for example. From there, we can draw a line to the nymphs of Greek mythology.

Greek mythology was another major influence on Rare Flower, so the idea that fairies are intimately associated with nature—and the cycle of life and death, at the same time that they stand outside it—was a cornerstone of the worldbuilding.

The cover for Rare Flower, an m/m romance that takes liberties with fairy myths.

Fairies are primordial, in the sense that they don’t have a given form. They are also immortal. They are both intimately tied to the cycle of life and death, but they stand outside it. Thus, they are nature, in that they command the cycle, but they stand outside the cycle itself. They are the deathless embodiment of nature and the “magic” of it, while also overseeing the endless cycles of life-death-rebirth.

The fairies in Rare Flower are both deity and something else, divine and immortal, magic users and able to take humanoid form, but something apart from that. They were never children; they did not grow up. They do not reproduce, yet they govern all forms of life.

These fairies live apart, in the realm of “faery” or—in Ant’s case, the underworld. Ant is thus a faery, but he’s also a chthonic deity. He might be likened to a figure like Hades (and, indeed, the Hades/Persephone myth is something I play with). Ant is both to be feared and yet benevolent. He might be malicious, since he’s not being properly worshipped by humans.

The Preoccupation with Nature, Death, and Rebirth

In the story, Ant is the overseer of the underworld, which is fairly Greek in its conception here. The dead become shades, who exist in the underworld. Titania, the Fairy Queen, suggests that rebirth might be part of the cycle. That is different to the Greek conception of the afterlife, where shades were frozen. They did not grow or evolve; they were the person (or creature) that had died, senseless and unseeing. In the world of Rare Flower, though, shades are meant to leave the underworld at some point, to be reincarnated. Thus there is an ebb and flow. The underworld receives the shades of the dead. The shades are, at points, recalled to the mortal coil to live another life.

Thus the crux of the issue is that there is currently too much death, such that the underworld has become overcrowded. It teems with shades; the pace of death has outpaced rebirth, thanks to human hubris. Humans have forgotten their pact with the primordial nature gods and instead create destruction and death at an unprecedented pace.

The Real-World Tie to the Lore

This is really happening. The expansion of human civilization, industrialization, urbanization, and climate change have led to huge losses in biodiversity and frequent mass death events. There might be a lot of humans, but animals, plants, and insects are being wiped out all over the world.
In Rare Flower, the fairies suggest that humanity has forgotten “nature worship,” a promise to revere nature. In other words, they’ve forgotten the “old gods” as they pursue money, technological advance, fame and glory.

Thus, the fairies, as nature deities, have been weakened, and they’re not happy about it. Humanity needs to be knocked down a peg or two, to be reminded of the delicate balance that allows for life on earth. If nothing is done, then the underworld will “tear asunder.” Death will take over the mortal coil—or perhaps even destroy the universe.

Is This a Good Use of Fairy Myths?

Probably not! I wouldn’t recommend Rare Flower as a textbook case of fairy mythology. By my own admission, I’m playing fast and loose with the ideas and tales, and I’m fusing them with other traditions. Thus, Rare Flower is a kind of hybrid mythological tradition.

That said, it’s one based on common roots present in the mythological traditions that inform it. Fairies are nature deities, and they are associated with death in some traditions. Thus, it isn’t much of a stretch to put them in charge of the cycle of life-death-rebirth. In some traditions, they do live underground, so it’s not much of a stretch to make them chthonic creatures either.

All that said, though, if you’re looking for the seelie and unseelie court, you’ll want to look elsewhere. If you want pure Celtic myth (something I’m not convinced truly exists), you’ll want to find another book.

But if you like malevolent fairies who might be monsters, mythological creatures who do not “get” humans in the slightest, or mythological mishmash, then Rare Flower might be right up your alley.

About the author

By Cherry

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