From Grimm to Disney and Back Again: The Changing Fae (A DisConIII Panel)

In December 2021, I had the opportunity to attend DisConIII. Here are my other DisCon posts.

The panelists for the titular panel were E. Lily Yu, Jean Bürlesk, Jenny Rae Rappaport, Lesley Wheeler, and Hildy Silverman.

The panel description was as follows: Early fairy tales tended to be very dark stories. The 1800s saw the emergence of lighter, more whimsical fairies. Walt Disney made them even more saccharine. Now we are starting to see a return to the more dangerous, untrustworthy Fae. From Grimm’s Fairy Tales to Sleeping BeautyJonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, and The Dresden Files, our panelists will discuss how the Fae have changed over the years.

What Inspired Stories Of Fae?

While many cultures have stories of Fae or similar creatures, they are not universal. Although, many have a trickster god or being that sometimes plays similar roles — such as Coyote. The line between fae and gods can be fuzzy, but what the beings are depends on the beliefs of the storyteller. That said, there are as many theories as there are people, but here are some of the top ones.

  • Equating the fae with nature and the consequences of messing with it
  • Reflecting back the different sides of human nature
    • disowned children
    • responsibilities for duties and to deities
  • Showing that choices have consequences (and on the flip side…)
  • Showing sometimes things just happen, no matter how well you follow the rules
  • The wild hunt stories came about in an era where the royalty had the horses and the permission to hunt the wild spaces

Some stories of the fae are fantasy and some are horror. Often, the scariest fae are the ones with no signs they are not human.

What Inspired Stories of Changelings?

There are multiple theories here as well and there’s no reason all of them can’t be right.

  • With the high infant mortality rate, it could be reassuring to think that your child could be alive somewhere else
  • Parents rejecting their child because the child isn’t what they expected or wanted – for reasons from having their own opinions, to neuro-diversity and autism, to physical limitations.
  • People are weird, kids are really weird. As they learn logic and the way the adult world works, they often take sideways leaps of logic.

The Evolution: Was Disney Responsible For Changing Fae Stories From Cautionary to Inviting?

No.

If we track the stories to their earliest forms, we often find the stories begin as a connection to the inexplicable, transition to cautionary tales, and then are softened “for children” — because these stories were originally intended for adults.

Industrialization was actually the beginning of the change. While many rural communities live with — or are even comfortable living with the inexplicable, we started to want everything explained.

And with industrialization, we also got the Victorian creation of children’s culture.

They also show the evolving role of women in a society — from women with magic and mystique, to powerless, to the helpful wise-woman, to Disney’s evil stepmother. And this played out in real life. In Luxemburg alone, around 3,500 “witches” and “werewolves” were burned during the Renaissance. That’s not even looking elsewhere. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed because myths created monsters and decided to find them.

Nowadays, we don’t get many fae stories told as truth these days, instead, we get stories of aliens. Where earlier stories of the fae talk about appeasing them, the alien tales are ones of dissection and study. As a thought exercise, think about what that says about where we are as a society and what we fear.

Were there places taht avoided “Disneyfication”?

Yes!

Germany, parts of Scandinavia, Russia, and Japan. And pockets here and there. Obviously, Disneyfication predominately happened to Western European stories, and those translated by those of Western European descent into English. Not all cultures followed this trend.

Parting Advice

Don’t give them your true name.

This is a common theme across many of the cautionary tales and is still good advice today. Often, nicknames or usernames are used instead. Think about it, we have so much information online connected to our true names, we’ve got to be careful who possesses it.


Any thoughts they missed on the fae?

What’s your favorite tale of fae?

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