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Up the airy mountain
Down the rushy glen,
We daren't go a-hunting,
For fear of little men;
The Fairies William Allingham

"What are ye doing, O Flesh and Blood,
And what's your foolish will,
That you must break into Minepit Wood
And wake the Folk of the Hill?"
The Ballad of Minepit Shaw Rudyard Kipling

Basic Information

Fairies are a type of supernatural being, possibly a spirit which, depending on which mythological source you ask, can be nature spirits, spirits of the dead, former angels who allied neither with Heaven nor with Hell, former pagan deities, and so forth. Others believe them to mystical races related to humans in some way or forming part of some previous world order. Some medieval traditions suggest that the fae, whilst not actually allied to Hell, owed some form of protection in the form of a "tithe of souls". This tended to tie in with an aversion to consecrated ground, holy relics and similar sacred things. The mazikeen of Hebrew folklore seem to manifest similar characteristics and may or may not be related.

They are generally said to be highly capricious but bound by the letter of their promises. Cold iron is said to repel them. In more modern times, they generally stay out of the sight of humans, but they can be very dangerous to trespassers and those who offend them, even accidentally. There are, it must be said, occasional reports of fae that don't have trouble with iron - sometimes to the extent of having iron claws or teeth. Almost all these are anthropophagous to some degree and the two factors may well be related.

They are said to vary from the inhumanly beautiful to the utterly hideous - although even the most humanlike will have some feature that gives them away on closer examination1 - and in size from tiny to larger than human. Their attitudes also seem to vary widely - some are violent and bloodthirsty, some light hearted and playful (although frequently with an unpleasant sense of humour) and others utterly solemn. All seem to be obsessed with custom, precedent and balance (although their idea of what is valuable is often widely different from ours) - and easily offended by people who trespass against them, knowingly or not. Some or all of them are prone to object to being called fairies2 and will generally be offended by other inaccurate or disrespectful conduct.

Anglo-Scottish myth in particular sorts the fae into the "Seelie" (sort of good) and UnSeelie" (mostly evil) Courts, traditionally each with its own King and Queen. Given the nature of the fae, the good/evil distinction should not be relied upon and not even the Seelie court are entirely safe (or the Unseelie entirely consistent in their malice). Both are best handled with a mixture of courtesy and avoidance. Whether all fae belong to the courts or not is disputed. Fae are also traditionally sorted between the "trooping" and "solitary" kinds, although this distinction is less reliable since even it is hard for a mortal to tell normally solitary fae gathered for a specific occasion from those that are habitually sociable. By rule of thumb the more solitary the fae, the more erratic and capricious its nature - but then the sluagh are famously gregarious and infamously dangerous3. Some traditions depict the fae as an entire species of psychopaths, unable to feel any genuine emotion or empathy (possibly as a result of lacking a soul), and/or as incapable of genuine creativity(a trait commonly assigned to immortals) - both conditions being said to provoke their interest in (and sometimes their jealousy and/or hatred of) humanity.

In some cases, the "high fae"4 - the nobles of the respective courts - are said to be incapable of lying. Not, it must be emphasised, that they would always speak the truth (they could still deceive be omission or by presenting the facts in a misleading manner), but that they were incapable of saying anything that was actually untrue. Alternatively, some tellings suggested that a fae needed to have said something three times before you could guarantee that it was true5. In any case, what a fairy doesn't say may be more important that what they do say…

Whilst they tend to be resistant to change in most things, it is not unknown for them to be curious about mortal matters and or entranced by a talented or beautiful mortal. This rarely ends well, as being both ancient and immortal they have no sense of time, and a mortal brought to a fairy revel may find that years have passed in the course of what seemed to be only a single night…

Worse still, the fairies sometimes abduct mortal children - some say as slaves, others to study or use for breeding stock. Sometimes a fairy will take the child's place, becoming a changeling, either to cover up the abduction or to steal the child's identity and experience life as a mortal, although such infiltrators generally give themselves away sooner or later through their inability to stay in character. Where a changeling isn't left, the fae are prone to leave a fetch in the child's place instead.

Between the changeling phenomenon and the occasional disappearance of entertainers, the fey have been a pretty fair fit for the abductor in many mytheia.

Fairies are said to wield great magical power, although how much of their magic is merely illusion is open to question - gifts extorted from fairies are sometimes little better than witch boons and those freely given are sometimes not much better. Their gold, in particular, has a tendency to turn back into dead leaves at inopportune moments. So much of their "power" often turns out to be trickery, and whilst going toe to toe with them is unwise at best, anything so vulnerable to being warded off by cheap iron nails, or even fresh bread is not all that great a power.

Where to find - or, more importantly, where to avoid - the fae depends on tradition. In many cases they have defined territories in the real world, but in other cases they are said to live in a "Land of Faerie" which is imminent to but distinct from the mortal world. Quite often specific stone circles, hills or other similar features serve as gateways between worlds - either to a pocket dimension within the feature or to the world in general. The fae tendency to deceit and illusion somewhat blurs any attempt to keep track of movement to and from their domains. Time may also flow at vastly different rates on the various sides of the gate.

In Scandinavia, the Fairy nations are represented by the Huldra … who are frequently also referred to as trolls.

List of Fairies

See Also


2. Book: A Field Guide to the Little People by Nancy Arrowsmith and George Moorse — a decent catalogue of the Fair Folk of many different countries with folk tales accompanying each entry.
3. Essay: "On Fairy-Stories" by J.R.R. Tolkien (reprinted in The Tolkien Reader) — mostly about Fantasy as a form of literature, but Tolkien also devotes a good part of the essay discussing fairies and the faerie realms.

Game and Story Use

  • Their capricious nature and supernatural powers make fairies great antagonists - especially if the PCs need to outwit the fairy instead of besting it in combat (which may be next to impossible).
  • Fairies might approach a group of PCs for help - something important to them is under threat (say, a woodland threatened by development) and they need mortal agents to save it. As employers the fey - weird, capricious and with no sense of time, money or mortal culture - leave a lot to be desired and the payment may be even more trouble than the job.
  • The PCs buy - or are given - a property or piece of land that seems extremely valuable, except that it's infested with fairies, who prove to be an utter nuisance and make it virtually unusable.
  • A young mother insists that her baby … isn't her baby any more. Obviously some kind of postnatal psychosis and a job for the social services. Except that wherever the baby goes, there seems to be a long trail of unfortunate accidents - how to stop the extremely unseelie changeling, recover the stolen child and reunite it with its institutionalised mother whilst facing harassment from child protection staff who are far too clever to believe in fairies?
  • The fair folk are notoriously promiscuous and fickle in their affections - what of a child, mysteriously fatherless whose wan, distracted mother still pines for an absent fairy lover? Or the young bachelor whose unremembered night in the woods one summer solstice comes back to haunt him when a baby in a strangely woven basket appears on his doorstep?
  • They are the source of 'lost time' that predates alien abduction (but mirrors it very closely in other ways) - what strangenesses might come from an unexplained disappearance that the victim never quite remembers after his return?
  • Alternatively the abductee might remember his sojourn all too well, with or without affection - like Thomas Rhymer or Tam O'Lynn. Either way he might have picked up some useful skills, allies or enemies in his time in faerieland.
  • The PCs have sold something for a good price in gold - only to find themselves holding a bag of dead leaves.
  • Fae characters should be tricky to pull off well - many players will struggle to play a high functioning psychopath with some form of OCD, but given that their character has left fae society to live with mortals, that may be an excuse for turning the problem down a bit. That said, there should be some significant aspect of their character which reflects their completely variant mentality.
    • The creative sterility can explain the fact that, despite being potentially millennia old, their skills are at roughly the same level as those of human teenagers.
    • Any magical talent should probably tend towards the use of illusions and shape changing - but again, they may be outcast for a reason.
    • The ironbane from which the fae traditionally suffer may be a significant handicap … or not, depending on the setting and, assuming game balance is a thing, this will need to be quantified and taken into account.
    • Some treatments would suggest less OCD/psychpath and more autist in the characterisation of the fae, especially where their literal mindedness and need for correct ritual are concerned. This is the type of fae that, when asked for a baby by a childless woman, present her with a changeling child that persists in infancy for fifty years. Suchlike could do something like that without comprehending that they were doing harm - the woman, after all, asked for a baby, and they gave her just that … and one that lasted much longer than a human baby as well. What could be the problem?
    • Note the inclusion of Elves and Dwarves amongst the fae … this is the norm for European mythology, but Fantasy more often goes with the far less mysterious Tolkien versions.
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