In the Scottish border ballad “Thomas the Rhymer,” there’s a sequence of verses where the Queen of Elfland shows her human companion three roads: one “narrow road / so thick beset with thorns and briars,” which is the path of righteousness; one “broad broad road,” that is the path of wickedness; and finally between them “that bonny road, that winds about the ferny brae,” which is the path to Elfland.
This might be the best definition of faeries I’ve managed to find.
“Faeries” (or fairies, fae, fey, and various other forms) are, in their strictest sense, a pretty narrow concept. We get the term from French, but most of the creatures and qualities that leap to mind are thoroughly Celtic in origin, specifically Irish and Scottish and Welsh. If you broaden it slightly you start looping in Germanic ideas, your elves and dwarves and nixies and so forth, but the farther you get from northwestern Europe, the more the fabric starts to fray. If you find a book that purports to describe “Chinese fairies” or any such thing, it’s time to put on your skeptical face — or just to put the book down entirely. That word is often a warning flag that the author is trying to cram foreign concepts like xian into a northwestern European framework, whether it fits or not.
So why I do I cite a Scottish ballad as a good definition of faeries? Because while details like an aversion to iron or division into Seelie and Unseelie Courts are culturally specific, many folklores contain the general concept of “middle” creatures. Not beings of pure good, divine servitors you might term angels; not beings of profound evil, malevolent forces you might term demons; creatures that walk the road in between those two extremes, yet are distinct from humans.
Even within a given society, this category often has fuzzy borders. What counts as a yōkai in Japan? A whole slew of things, ranging from animals who can take human form to humans cursed for their bad behavior to inanimate objects that have taken on a life of their own. You can attempt to divide them up into subcategories like obake or tsukumogami; Tsutomu Ema came up with three different classification schemes, with five categories (if going by their true form), seven categories (if going by external appearance), or four categories (if going by the source of their mutation) — and even then there were lots of things that crossed boundaries. (Liminality strikes again!)
Cross-culturally, it’s possible to find patterns. Greek nymphs — not just the well-known dryads but less famous types like oreads (tree nymphs), nereids (sea nymphs), naiads (river nymphs), and more have parallels in Germanic nixies, Japanese kodama, and other spirits connected to natural features. They even have a distant, bowdlerized echo in the Victorian concept of “flower fairies”: tiny, winged creatures a la Tinkerbell. The helpful domestic brownie has similarities to the Slavic domovoy or Iberian duende — but also differences; the duende, for example, is also associated with the natural world in some traditions, and as such gets treated sometimes as a synonym for the Mayan alux.
But as with all the things we’ve been discussing this month, it would be a mistake to try to push that pattern-finding too far. The cultural specificity matters; the word jinn may derive from a Semitic root that means “hidden,” but that isn’t grounds for mapping them onto the Icelandic huldufólk or “hidden folk.” The latter are strongly tied to the landscape and its natural phenomena, while the former, at least in their Islamic (as opposed to pre-Islamic) form, have more in common with the nephilim — and round and round the dance of similarity and difference goes.
The core of the category often seems to be creatures that have a humanoid form, or at least can take such a form when they choose; we rarely think of dragons when someone brings up faeries. We may assume they default to being pretty, but if you dig into the folklore they’re just as likely to be grotesque — often humorously so — a characteristic which the artist Brian Froud has taken great joy in depicting. They might be tiny, from the size of a child down to the size of a finger; on the other hand, they can also be taller than a human, all the way up to a giant.
This variability is why I keep coming back to that “middle road” idea. It isn’t very specific, but if you’re trying to talk cross-culturally, a broad definition is the only one that stands even a vague chance of fitting. The sense encapsulated there is that there exist creatures in the world that are neither human, nor divine, nor diabolical. They’re supernatural, and they probably have unusual abilities, and they’re often dangerous . . . but the danger might be impersonal, in the way nature is impersonally perilous. Sometimes it’s more mischief than outright malice. Sometimes these creatures are helpful. In many cases how they behave depends on how you interact with them. It’s a bit like Schroedinger’s cat: their nature encompasses a wide range of possibility, and that doesn’t collapse down to a single result until someone opens the box.
That’s what makes them narratively interesting. Such creatures are folklore’s wild card: they are frequently tricksters, shapechangers, and masters of illusion. The yōkai writer and artist Matthew Meyer often points out that the mutability and instability of yōkai — both in terms of their individual nature and how we try to study them as a category — is exactly their defining and most intriguing feature. It may seem antithetical to modern fiction, where we’re often told we need “systems” for our magic and many supernatural creatures lend themselves to being nailed down into a stat block for a game . . . but this messiness and unpredictability is the hallmark of real folklore, and more stories could make use of that.