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  • sianynleigh

The Dark Side of Fairy Tales

We are all familiar with fairy tales as vehicles to teaching moral lessons or earnings about the pitfalls of trusting too easily, the dangers of naive love, and or how to avoid the myriad of predators (both human and Fae) that haunt our existence. But there is an even darker side to fairy tales and their role in society. 


Back before modernized hospitals, textbooks, and thousands of qualified medical scientists and researchers, medical diagnosis and treatments were left to the oldest, wisest, or most divinely appointed among the community. This often resulted in misdiagnosis and treatments derived from superstition, religious ritual, or just plain imagination. Unsurprisingly, these treatments often failed and if the illness didn’t kill the poor victim, the cure did. Mourning families were left searching for answers and ways to prevent such tragedies from continuing, but had only limited sources of information. This inevitably led to scapegoating Fairies as the cause of unknown illnesses and seemingly unwarranted deaths. Anything that caused contortions, seizures, lesions, boils, or other visible symptoms were seen as proof the person was being harassed or cursed by fairies.  Babies born with physical differences were believed to be changelings, and people (especially women) who are perceived to have a sudden personality change - acting defiantly, moody, or any behavior not deemed ‘acceptable’ by spouses or community leaders - were said to be ‘taken away by the fairies’ and replaced with imposters. 


Fairies themselves were used as stand-ins or villainized representations of marginalized peoples and neurodivergence. Characteristics of Autism and ADHD were personified in the habits and idiosyncrasies of Fairies. One had to be careful in what words they used in speaking with fairies, careful to speak in exact terms without metaphor or innuendo as fairies were seen to take things literally without social context clues. They are easily distracted by objects, music, movement, and lose interest in a target quickly. They complete tasks quickly at odd hours and in unconventional ways - all attributes which could also be applied to individuals with neurodivergence.


Transgenderism and queer people were made into caricatures in effeminate fairy men or androgynous fairy beings. Their penchant for fine, flashy clothes and jewelry is well-known and used against them in many a tale, so much so that the term Fairy eventually became to be used derogatorily to describe a cis-man who had or was suspected to have a queer identity or didn’t appear “man enough”. Many fairy beings are shapechangers and gender roles in fairy society are poorly defined in comparison to their human counterparts.


Fear of outsiders or those from other ethnicities were also represented in the stereotypes of certain fairies. In European areas, dark-skinned fairies were evil, subterranean, and out to steal the resources of the surface dwellers. Goblins and ogres possessed characteristics associated with marginalized political and religious groups of the time: blood libel, exaggerated facial features, cannibalism, forced servitude, greed. Many earth fairy types had an almost comical obsession with gold or jewels. It doesn’t take much to draw parallels between their representation and the rampant anti-Semitism that plagued much of Europe for centuries. 


While at the time people believed these things to be true (or at least pretended to believe them for their own ends), we recognize these assumptions and accusations today as ableist, racist, misogynist, or just plain ignorant of medical and mental health. It’s important we recognize and contextualize these origins, no matter how we may have idolized the tales as children or consider them valuable literary assets.


Representation matters, especially when that representation can harm living people today. It is vital we understand the metaphorical use of fairy tales so we can create modern tales that honor the literary tradition without misrepresentation of living people who deserve to not see themselves villainized in what is supposed to be entertaining stories. 


So, how do we enjoy, write, and continue the tradition of fairy tales ethically? Treat the fairy creatures in your story as you would any human character.


Avoid stereotyping or creating monocultures. Be cognizant of using a fairy creature as a stand-in for a marginalized group or representation. This is not to be confused with an allegory, which can be used to metaphorically represent the challenges marginalized or oppressed groups face without reducing them to 2-dimensional caricatures.


If there is a magical illness or curse, don’t make it a poorly disguised parallel of a real illness, especially one that is often maligned or stigmatized. Make it something that fits within the worldbuilding you have created and has wholly magical origins.


Magic should not be a substitution for science, but exist simultaneously and ideally be weighed equally within the character’s mind. That is to say, the story should not lean too heavily on the hand-wave of “magic did it”, but acknowledge in some way that science exists and is sometimes the answer, but that this time, the answer was indeed magical.


And, importantly, if your fairy character is the villain, their motivation for evil deeds should present as something more substantial than “people with this personality or physical trait or difference are evil”. 


There are a ton more points I’m sure I’m missing, so I will wrap it up with a piece of overall sound advice for whatever story you may have in mind: Your characters, regardless of species, creed, or origin, have desires, feelings, motivations, goals, and challenges the same as any other character, human or otherwise. Treat them as such, with the respect, dignity, and complexity they deserve. 


Until next time, Stay Magical!

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