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Archive for February, 2010

Lately, I’ve been working my way through the Illustrated Encyclopedia of Fairies for some research. It’s been sort of interesting but also sort of monotonous because so many fairies in so many cultures are basically alike (water fairies, house fairies, forest fairies, etc., etc., etc.). However, there’s one thing I’ve learned (which I actually already knew)—stories of fairies exist for a purpose.

Your basic fairy tale, it turns out, is sort of propaganda. They’re a way to convince people (frequently children or teenagers) to follow social norms. Because, of course, if they don’t, Something Terrible Will Happen.

Take the fairies who like to kidnap children, for example (and there are lots of them, believe me). The children who are snatched are usually doing something they shouldn’t do. Most frequently, they’re wandering away from home into the forest or down by the seashore or on the road to the village. And frequently they haven’t done their chores. The fairies lure them away and they’re never seen again. Or they come back but it’s centuries later so that everything they know and love is gone (hello, Rip Van Winkle). Or terrible things are done to them—their eyes are poked out, their hands or legs are paralyzed, they become ugly and misshapen. All because they wandered away from home and didn’t do their chores. Another, rather odd class of story deals with fairies who live in closets under the stairs or in wooden storage boxes. If someone, say a nosy child, peeks in the closet door or opens the wooden box, the fairy grabs him and, as usual, Does Something Terrible. So, the storyteller intones, do your chores, don’t wander off, and stay the hell out of the closets or the fairies will get you!

Now these ancient story-tellers could probably have said, more realistically, don’t wander off because the [Mongols, Vikings, Visigoths, Nasty Baron With Peculiar Tastes] will get you. But the fairies had that extra supernatural tang that might make the kids a little more likely to pay attention.

For adolescents and adults, the message was more tuned to keeping the community together. Don’t dance with strange men/women on the village green because they’re likely to dance you to death. Don’t go walking with strange men/women down by the river or the seashore because they’re likely to pull you under. In fact, resist those sexual charms that come from unknown people. Stick with your own kind and you won’t end up wasting away from fairy charms.

We still convey sort of similar messages with urban legends. Don’t go to the lovers lane with your boyfriend or the hook man will get you. Hang onto your mother’s hand in the mall or a nasty stranger will snatch you away. But am I the only one who finds those stories a little, well, lame? As far as I’m concerned, serial killers got nothing on the Wild Hunt in terms of terror.

So if my sons ever get around to having grandchildren (are you listening, boys?), I think I’ll hunt up my old copy of the Brothers Grimm. After all, don’t wander off, do your chores, and stay the hell out of the closet still constitutes pretty good advice!

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