Musings on children's and YA literature, the academy, and the relationship between them, from an English professor and mother.

Monday, November 10, 2008

When did fairies get cute?

Many years ago my daughter dressed up for Hallowe'en as (her choice, her words) a "princess-fairy-angel-bride."* Friends teased me about "gender girl's" choice. But the part I remember best about it is the wings she insisted on having, that made the get-up a "fairy" or an "angel" rather than just a pretty girl. When did fairies get cute?

Today my students read and discussed several "stolen child" poems from the nineteenth century, including "The Pied Piper of Hamelin" (Browning), "The Fairies" (Allingham), and "The Stolen Child" (Yeats). It's not clear what, exactly, the Piper is, but he has fairy-like qualities: he dresses funny, he has magical powers, and he steals kids. In the other two it's even clearer: fairies are weird and dangerous, though not (perhaps) actually malevolent. They live in relationship to the human world, but they do not love it. And they can do things that hurt us, though their intentions are not entirely clear.

In some recent novels that I loved (Blackbringer, How to Ditch Your Fairy), it's really clear that fairies aren't particularly cute or even helpful; they do what they do, and there are consequences for us but that's not their primary concern. Tinkerbell (the original, in Peter and Wendy) is actively hostile to Wendy, if not to the other children. So are the cute fairies derived from fairy godmothers? (Though, as I recall, the one in Disney's Cinderella is dumpy, not cute at all.) Are they derived from the Disney Peter Pan? Or am I missing something here? Because, really, the cute fairy is as bad as the rainbow-colored unicorn--a perversion of the mythology. I know the YA authors may come after me for defending the unicorn* (a glorious and scary creature, really, much better than a zombie). But what about fairies?

*She hates for me to tell this story, but it's totally true.
**(Diane Peterfreund does that much better anyway)


  1. What about all the twee fairies of Victorian/Edwardian England? Cecily Mary Baker's flower fairies, Carroll's Sylvie and Bruno, the resultant Cottingley episode, etc, etc.

  2. Ah, I was also going to bring up the Cecily Mary Baker flower fairies. I think they set the tone for fairies in picture books to follow, where the fairies are always pretty and sweet.

    Now of course, for that early elementary crowd we have the Rainbow Fairies series, and the Disney Fairies series. So the trend goes on.

  3. Oh, yes, of course the Flower Fairies! And yet just a little earlier in the century you have the creepy "Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke," which is what I always think of when I think Victorian fairies. I blame the Edwardians now.

  4. In today's Columbus Dispatch (Ohio) there's a story on fairy houses. Only instead of kids building them out of natural materials in the back yard, adults are putting wooden dollhouses (with furniture) in the backyard and then tiptoeing out there to spread glitter and tell their kids it's fairy dust. Oh, and the adults get the kids dollhouse fairy figures. Cute, huh?

  5. I loved Blackbringer, but I certainly didn't think of Magpie as cute.

    I also don't see the fairies in the Artemis Fowl books this way either.

    By cute do you mean popular? It sure seems like we're seeing a lot of fairies these days.

  6. Tricia, I really do mean "cute" as in "cutesy." I agree completely about Blackbringer and Artemis Fowl--they seem much more in line with the kind of non-cute fairies I was reading about in class. But the kind Mariah wanted to be...the Disney kind...I think Monica and MR are right that they derive from the Flower Fairies and such. But I still wonder why?

  7. I was just thinking about the Spiderwyck Chronicles where the fairies are clearly derived from the Edwardian period and particularly in its weird botanical/naturalist studies.

    You may have to go back to the Romantic period because there are some "fairy" poems that Letitia Landon wrote where there are some cute fairies (although also somewhat dangerous). Those fairies seem to be rooted in the mythological, however.

  8. I see Cicely Mary Barker has been mentioned a few times, and she's definitely a good place to start. I was given her collection of Flower Fairies as a child and didn't grow out of the "cute fairies" until I met Terry Pratchett's Discworld series.

    But Barker's fairies are definitely a part of the so-calling "nicing" of things as certain areas are increasingly made to be nicer for younger audiences.