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In the 12th century the fairies appear, outside all religion, as if detached from a mythology that has not survived time. These legendary female characters with supernatural powers create their own world of references, tapping into ancient beliefs that have never been completely forgotten. Carriers of memories but free of any system, they are made up of a bundle of ancient traditions which remind us that the language of nature and pagan memory remain anchored in us. Feminists, libertarians, environmentalists ahead of time, what do they tell us about men's concerns, their concerns, their hopes? How do they embody our eternal need to remain linked to the forces of the imagination, to return to the origin of our dreams and our phantasmagoria?
The fairy at the origins of literature
For nine centuries, fairies have mingled with literary and artistic fields, myths and legends. It was in the middle of the 12th century that the novel was born, the word for which designates the Romance language, heir to Latin and ancestor of French. This diverts the use of the written word until then reserved for the transmission of knowledge and religion.
Thus, stories appear which are justified by the sole pleasure of reading or listening to them, works of entertainment, the birth of fiction. To compose her lays, Marie de France, the first poet in the Romance language, collected her stories from the mouths of Breton storytellers. The bards of the courts of England, Champagne, Alsace or Italy who sang their poems took up elements of their ancient mythology to compose them into tales and legends. These themes, inexhaustible sources of inspiration, were material for the first novels. It is in this movement that the fairy was born, a newcomer to the repertoire of marvelous tales.
Uniting their destiny in the daily life of men, imperfect, ephemeral and fascinating, appeared female creatures of supernatural essence: nymphs, dryads, apsaras (celestial Hindu nymphs, Valkyries etc. The fairy presents a unique identity that speaks of a relationship peculiar and unprecedented in the spiritual world of a close exchange between this world and the other world. Coming from popular beliefs, it is of great beauty and can distribute wealth and benefits. In the peasant environment, there is a varied denomination for the spirits of the woods and the waters.
The origin of the word fairy, from the Latin fata, emphasizes the role that fairies play in human destiny, whether they predict it, transform it or master it. First adjective as much as noun, "fairy" or "fae" designates anything that is revealed to be endowed with a supernatural essence: mountain, tree, castle, horse, knight. The verb fairy (endowed with a magical power) exists and continues very late in folklore. But the lady fae hijacks the word for her exclusive use.
In this word resonates the notion of enchantment, of wonder (in the medieval sense of the term which is contrary to the order of nature) which exceeds it in beauty or in horror. When the character is born, different terms are used: goddess, nymph, forest woman, demoness or succubus ... without any agreement on them. Difficult to identify the newcomer, who borrows from the goddesses and nature spirits of the Greek and Latin pantheons as well as those of the woods and waters of the ancient Germans. In it are recomposed various traditions of Europe, giving a new dimension to the legendary, which allows it to take place in a society that has become Christian.
A birth in the Celtic world
The characteristics of our fairies are found in '' the Ban Sîd '' (the woman of the other world) of Celtic mythology. Golden hair, pale skin, red mouth, black eyelashes, unveiled more than dressed in white, green and gold, she sails on a crystal boat or rides a horse harnessed in silver, accompanied by music. Her areas of predilection are fresh water, the sea in the Gaelic tales of Ireland and Scotland since she comes from the islands in the north of the world, a kingdom similar to the islands of Avalon.
She is also a forest girl who can take the form of a doe, a bird, a fox. Her appearance, her demeanor, her ability to give birth to children with a human mark her as a hybrid creature. She comes into the world of men to claim the one she chooses to lead towards love, sometimes towards royalty.
The Valkyries, warrior virgins who serve Odin, choose, during battles, heroes of exceptional bravery and lead them to '' Valhalla '' the Nordic paradise. The most famous Valkyrie is Brünnhilde, young girl of Odin, in love with Sigurd-Siegfried then instigator of his assassination.
Medieval fairies borrow their knowledge from the ancient priestesses of the Celts and Germans, who know the plants, the stars and master time. Chateaubriand had his druidess Vélléda say "the Gallic fairies have the power to stir up storms, to conjure them from taking the form of animals".
The fairy Morgana calls the storm and commands the winds from her sanctuary west of any wild land. Viviane (Lady of the Lakes) plays with the liquid element in various forms. Lover or mother, the fairy raises young heroes in the heart of the forests, teaching them courage, freedom, poetry at the same time as the good use of the bow and the sword. This is how Viviane will ensure Lancelot's education by teachers whom she brings to a castle on the edge of a lake.
The king-making fairies
The fairy bears witness to society in the said and the unspoken in this 12th century when the weight of wars is lighter, bringing new wealth and freedom, while the yoke of feudalism is cracking, that towns develop, while Christianity adorns the territory with churches and abbeys. It takes place in this convergence between evolution and a culture in the process of being born. Heir to ancient cults, her roots in literature keep her in the convenient world of fiction.
But she is only all-powerful in a particular domain, a place, a precise function, in a limited time and subject to a strict contingency: like the fairy Viviane locked within the limits of Brocéliande, or such Mélusine united in spite of herself to the family. of the Lusignans in the constraint of a pact impossible to untie.
Reigning families, quite historic, claim their enthronement through the benevolence of goddesses or fairies. For these dynasties, such filiation is synonymous with unparalleled prestige. It helps them to reclaim themselves from the supernatural world, to transcend time, asserting themselves with a different essence, freeing themselves from the church without opposing it.
Richard the Lionheart, for example, boasted of having demon's blood in his veins to justify his amoral actions. The Plantagenets elect as their historical ancestor the mythical figure of King Arthur "the most beloved king of the fairies". A legend makes the Grail, the fairies, the holy sepulcher coexist. It concerns Lohengrin (son of Perceva whose wife will never have to ask him where he comes from under penalty of being abandoned; promise that she breaks before leaving for the next world, the son of the Grail will found the noble family of Bouillon.
In times of strict morality and very codified sexuality, the fairy offers free loves, without sin that last a night or an eternity. But this freedom is subject to constraints, to trials to be passed, to dangers that are often arbitrary because they fall under the laws of the other kingdom, which can sometimes make them deadly.
Compared to humans, they are free of their body, their heart, their wealth. They convey hope and the image of a freedom which women do not enjoy because their body or their goods never belong entirely to them. Whatever their skills, their birth, their functions, they depend on a preponderant male authority in these times. The fairy represents in medieval society what the Lady would like to be, what the knight would like to have: beauty, freedom for one, love, wealth for the other.
Despite the spread of printed books that only an elite could claim, the role of the storyteller is essential for all those, many, who cannot access the written word. The old stories thus continue their journey, modified by the environment, the events and the literary mode of the time in which they are told.
The evolution of fairy-tale history shows that of society and underlines the passage from the “beautiful Middle Ages” (12th and 13th centuries) to the black legend of the 14th and 15th centuries. First an object of desire, a promise of fulfillment, the fairy finds herself in a second epoch subject to a double evolution. Rationalization tolerates it by denaturing it: it annihilates everything that makes it different. The violence of demonization seeks to destroy it. Reduced to the rank of witch by the church which diverts the marvelous to its profit (which is enough to put the conscience back on the right path) it is replaced by the angels and its light goes out.
What touches the fairy is of the order of distraction, worldliness and frivolity. Christianity explains and justifies the world, occupying the terrain of the spiritual and religious practice. Fairies pay the tribute of their origins: enchantments become black magic, beautiful ladies turn out to be evil, are subject to aging, lose their eternal beauty. Their functions are performed by hermits, while the knights are guided by the angels who now carry the chalice of the Grail.
The ladies of the forests, the protectors of the knights, the magicians of the waters prepare their metamorphosis. With the Renaissance return the Greco-Latin Gods, the Arts and the philosophy of classical antiquity: fashion is to Italian taste. The nobility, eager for novelty, turned away from novels of adventure and wonder "that jumble of which childhood has fun" as Montaigne writes. It is the time of great discoveries. France turns away from the fairy world and the style of the novel evolves, becomes brief and quickly removed, sometimes with an explicit moral.
During the 16th century, fairy and tale remained inseparable: it is a literature of pleasure and escape. Then appear women novelists in social salons, using a symbolism that defends their right to exist in a society where their role is very depreciated, shaking up the codes. Forced marriages, monstrous husbands, so many themes that recur in tales, denouncing the condition of women. These, literate, read medieval novels, know the exploits of chivalry and the ancient works from which they are inspired.
From the end of the 17th century, a new literary genre was born: the fairy tale. He quickly won the favor of the public, thanks to the tales of Charles Perrault. Fairies in tales are often the godmothers of the hero or heroine of the tale (as in Cinderella, Donkey Skin, or Sleeping Beauty). They are "guardian angels" who protect and advise their proteges. In the Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi (published in 1881), the Blue fairy, godmother of Pinocchio, is the one who ends up breathing life into the wooden puppet to transform him into a little boy. At the same time, there are a few fairies with an evil character, of which the old Sleeping Beauty fairy (later called the Carabossus fairy) is the archetype.
Walking the fairy path, reads the story of a luminous subversion: the way in which the fairy tale comes to contradict the human will to elucidate, to organize and to control the world, by arousing new ideas, upsetting the established order. "Fairies have a story", yes, they announce that the time has come for a change. Where the lines move, take a good look: there is a fairy! Their name refers to ageless reveries and yet here they are, to vibrate a too frozen society, to give a boost, a new breath, to break the 'torpor' of ideas, to encourage more justice, yes! all this is part of their vocation.
Sources and illustrations
Fairies have a story by Claudine Glot. Editions Ouest-France, October 2014.
- The Woman in Fairy Tales, by Marie-Louise von Franz. Tallandier, 2015.
- The Fairy World in the Medieval West, by L. Harf-Lancner. Hachette, 2003.