fairy, in folklore, one of a variety of supernatural beings endowed with the powers of magic and enchantment. Belief in fairies has existed from earliest times, and literatures all over the world have tales of fairies and their relations with humans. Some Christians have said that fairies were the ancestors of the ancient pagan gods, who, having been replaced by newer deities, were therefore hostile. Others thought that fairies were nature deities, similar to the Greek nymphs. Still others identified fairies with the souls of the dead, particularly the unbaptized, or with fallen angels. Among their many guises, fairies have been described as tiny, wizen-faced old men, like the Irish leprechaun; as beautiful enchantresses who wooed men to their deaths, like Morgan le Fay and the Lorelei; and as hideous, man-eating giants, like the ogre.
Fairies were frequently supposed to reside in a kingdom of their own—which might be underground, e.g., gnomes; in the sea, e.g., mermaids; in an enchanted part of the forest; or in some far land. Sometimes they were ruled by a king or queen, as were the trolls in Ibsen's Peer Gynt and the fairies in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Although fairies were usually represented as mischievous, capricious, and even demonic, they could also be loving and bountiful, as the fairy godmother in Cinderella. Sometimes fairies entered into love affairs with mortals, but usually such liaisons involved some restriction or compact and frequently ended in calamity, as did those of Melusine and Undine. Various peoples have emphasized particular kinds of fairies in their folklore, such as the Arabic jinni, Scandinavian troll, Germanic elf, and English pixie. Among the great adapters of fairy lore into popular fairy tales were Charles Perrault, the brothers Grimm, and Hans Christian Andersen. Other notable contributors were Andrew Lang and James Stephens.
See K. M. Briggs, The Fairies in English Tradition and Literature (1967); J. D. Zipes, Breaking the Magic Spell: Radical Theories of Folk and Fairy Tales (1979), Fairy Tale as Myth/Myth as Fairy Tale (1994), and When Dreams Came True: Classical Fairy Tales and Their Tradition (1999); M. M. Tatar, Off with Their Heads!: Fairy Tales and the Culture of Childhood (1992); M. Warner, From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers (1995).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.