Last fall I began to think of writing a fantasy novel. This was a dubious idea for two reasons. One, I had read little fantasy, and most of that was Tolkien and Lewis. And two, the closest I had come in all my life to writing fantasy was a grade-school story about a talking bird who saved his tree from an axeman. It was even less exciting than it sounds, and it came off like a clumsily written entry for the Book of Virtues.
I needed to get some sort of feel for fantasy. To catch the spirit of it – and provide an imaginative basis for my story – I began researching European fairy-tales. My knowledge is still rather cursory, but here are two things I learned:
One, the world of Faerie is wilder and more dangerous than the modern world understands. In modern minds the Faeries are cut into broad and simple categories. You have the beautiful Elves, the grouchy Dwarves, the enemy goblins, and a few stray leprechauns or flitty, butterfly fairies.
These categories don’t hold in the old stories. If you read them, you will find Elves who match the description of our Dwarves, and Dwarves who seem, as you listen, to be Elves. The hobgoblins are no more malignant than the others, and the real monsters of Elfland – such as the kelpie and the vampirish woman-goat – have been largely unnoticed. The phooka is neglected – sadly, for his shape-shifting powers and the physical characteristics he always keeps make him an interesting case. The Kobold are worth hearing about at least once, and no Faeries bring more fun than the mischievous Brownies.
There is also an inescapable element of danger whenever humans blunder into Elfland. No mortal in the old tales ever thought it would be safe to meet a Faerie. The malignancy of the Faeries to humans – whether through malice, mischief, or the Faeries simply being what they are – is one of the strongest threads running through the fairy-tales.
Secondly, there is a certain darkness, a casualness about cruelty, in these stories. To give an example, there is a story of a boy named John who, by virtue of stealing a Faerie’s cap, lived in the Faeries’ underground palace as a lord among them. After some years he wanted something he could not command from them, and they refused to give it. So he ordered them to scourge themselves with whips. Unbending race that they were, they submitted to the punishment and refused to yield. Finally John relented and looked for new means for forcing them, because, as the teller says without sarcasm, he was too tender a soul to make them go on whipping themselves.
That is tenderheartedness in these tales: You relent on forcing people to scourge themselves.