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Wednesday, March 23, 2022

The Fairy Folklore in Pan's Labyrinth

 Continuing on with my series of fairy folklore in films and television let's look at the 2006 film Pan's Labyrinth, or 'El laberinto del fauno' [the labyrinth of the Faun]. This movie, much like Henson's Labyrinth, is full of folklore references which are worth discussing, as well as many references to classical literature and mythology which are beyond the purview of this blog. As with previous discussions we'll approach this bullet point style and talk about what we find in the movie versus what we'd expect in folklore. 
Spoilers ahead!

A very quick recap of the plot: a young girl named Ofelia and her pregnant mother go to live with her new stepfather who is a military officer trying to capture rebels fighting the government in Spain. Ofelia is led by a fairy into a labyrinth and meets a creature called the Faun who explains that she is the reincarnation of a princess who fled the world of fairy/underworld and was lost in the mortal realm. Ofelia is given three tasks to complete to return to the Underworld: retrieve a key, steal a knife, and (as is eventually revealed) spill a drop of innocent blood. She is initially given three fairies to help her accomplish this but when she tries to complete the second task she breaks a rule and eats some food after being told not to, resulting in the deaths of two of the fairies. In the midst of this her mother dies giving birth to Ofelia's brother. For the third task, which she hasn't been given in full yet, she is told to bring her infant brother to the labyrinth; when she does so - pursued by her furious stepfather - the Faun tells her to spill his blood. She refuses and her stepfather arrives, takes the baby, and shoots her. As she lays dying, her blood trickles into the labyrinth and the scene cuts to her in the Underworld where Ofelia is seen rejoining her mother and father who are sitting on thrones. The Faun acknowledges her as the princess.

   Let's look at the various points of folklore:

  • Ofelia initially sees a small fairy which appears as a stick bug but transforms into a fairy later. This is certainly playing into more recent (19th/20th century) folklore that has merged fairies with insects in various ways.
  • Ofelia is the only one who seems able to see the fairies. At various points in the film Ofelia is not the only one present when a fairy is near but she is the only one who can see them; even when her stepfather sees her talking to the Faun he sees only Ofelia. There is very old widespread folklore which tells us that the fairies can and do pass invisible to human sight but that some people, through natural affinity or through magic, may be able to see them. 
  • The number three shows up prominently in several important places. While not as widely noted in relation to fairies as the number 7 is we do see three being an important number across folklore as it is here with Ofelia's three tasks and three fairy helpers. 
  • Three tasks being required to win a prize or achieve a goal is something that in itself is sometimes found in fairylore or fairy stories. In some changeling folklore a person must do three things to retrieve a lost person, usually go to a fairy fort at night, grab the person off a fairy horse, and return all the way home without speaking (for example). 
  • Fairy prohibitions are a vital point to Ofelia's second task, which she nearly fails. She must steal a knife from a being called the Pale Man  who sleeps at the head of a table full of food and is warned not to touch any of the feast. However she gives in to temptation and  eats two grapes, which immediately wakes the Pale Man who attacks her - she escapes only because of her three fairy guides, two of which are killed. This is, to me, an obvious nod to the longstanding prohibition across fairy folklore not to eat fairy food. Although in folklore the punishment for eating such food is being trapped in Fairy in this case the punishment is literal death but both are strongly resonant of the idea of being trapped forever due to transgressing this prohibition. 
  • There is a strong connection in Pan's Labyrinth between the human dead and fairies. Ofelia is a human girl who is said to be the reincarnation of a fairy princess who died on earth; when the Ofelia is killed she reappears apparently as her fairy self in the world of fairy. When Ofelia is seen returning to the Underworld/Fairy her human mother, who had recently died, is there as her fairy mother. This is also reflected in the muddle between the Underworld and the Otherworld presented in the film. In folklore we see this same fluidity between concepts and the idea that human dead may become fairies and that some fairies were once human. 
  • Ofelia's final task is to spill innocent blood to open the way between the worlds. She refuses to harm her infant brother but when her own blood is spilled she is transported to the Underworld. While some have argued the end of the film is a metaphor for death it can be read more literally as it plays out, with her being allowed to return to her true home. Ofelia's father, the king of the Underworld, tells her she passed the final test and won her reward by refusing to harm her brother and choosing to sacrifice herself instead. While not exactly true to older folklore this is certainly resonant with many fairy stories where a person is presented with a task which is actually a test of character and only choosing the morally 'good' action wins. 
   Pan's Labyrinth is a complex and nuanced film which leads viewers into a very dark place and presents an end which is simultaneously triumphant and tragic. Fairy folklore is woven throughout the movie, intermixed with myth, literary references, and imagination. The result is a piece that isn't itself folklore but which feels folkloric in its tone and storytelling. 

Wednesday, March 9, 2022

Are Fairies Physical?

 One of the most common questions I'm asked is if fairies have physicality, if they are tangible beings. This is rooted I think in the common idea perpetuated especially in new age and post-Victorian fairy belief that these beings are entirely energy or thoughtforms, creatures that can be perceived by the mind but lack physical reality in this world. So let's dig into this shall we?

Arthur Rackham

The simple answer is: yes, no, and maybe. 
Because, really, nothing with fairies is simple.

The longer answer is that yes we have many accounts across mythology, folklore, and anecdotes that establish fairies are (or can be) physical in the human world but we also have stories were they are decidedly not. And that's the part we need to dig into. 

In the oldest Irish myth featuring the Good Folk, the Echtra Condla, we see a woman of fairy appearing to Connla, son of the king of Ireland, and interacting with him in a physical way by giving him an apple and eventually taking him - physically - off in a boat. But she is also invisible and imperceivable to the other people around Connla. In the same way when we encounter a man of the sidhe in the Táin Bó Cuiligne he passes unseen and apparently intangibly through the army of Connacht but then is seen and interacts with Cu Chulain and his charioteer Laeg. Stories like that of Sadb and Fionn show the physicality of these beings as well, with Sadb - a woman of the sidhe - being rescued by Fionn and eventually giving him a son. In fact we have many stories across the entire corpus of material and across western European cultures of fairies of various kinds reproducing with humans. 
There are also an array of stories that features predatory fairies that physically kill a human, such as the kelpie or each uisce who appear in the form of a horse, tempt a human to ride them, and then run off with the human and drown them before eating them. The Scottish Baobhan Sithe are beautiful women who tempt young hunters to dance with them only to kill them, and by all accounts they are physical beings. And of course selkies - well known across areas from Scotland to Iceland - are very physical beings who may be encountered as saviors of sailors in storms or may be trapped into unwilling marriages when their sealskins are stolen.

In contrast however we do find a few stories of fairy encounters where the beings seem intangible or able to do things beyond the normal limitations of our physical world. The Slua Sidhe flying unseen in whirlwinds may be one example. Will o the Wisps could be another, where lights are seen moving in trees, leading travellers astray, but appear and disappear without any connection to physical reality. There are also many anecdotal accounts of people experiencing fairies in non-physical ways which must be considered and of fairies seeming to vanish at will. This area is a bit muddier as some of this may be understood as invisibility rather than intangibility, but I'll still offer it for consideration here. 

This may seem contradictory but its worth keeping in mind that the answer here doesn't have to be a simple yes or no. Reverend Robert Kirk writing about fairies in 1691 described their physicality as fluid and compared their nature to a condensed cloud, saying they could choose to be physical or choose to be intangible at their own will. Jacob Grimm relates a story of a German elf woman who passed through the knothole in a door as if she were smoke but once inside was fully physical, married and had children with the man who lived there, before leaving the same way she'd entered. He also described a method to capture Maran, or Mares, who were also known to enter through knotholes by blocking the knothole after they'd come in because while they could turn into something like smoke to pass through that small opening if it were blocked they would be trapped in their physical form. All of this seems to imply that physicality is a choice for the Good Folk, something that they can have or not have at will. 

Are fairies physically real? Yes, according to the bulk of folklore, and no according to a few stories, and maybe both if we listen to Kirk and Grimm. Like everything else with this subject the answer is complex and ultimately nuanced.