The little people are big news this summer, and they’re more frightening than you might expect.
Forget the romanticized fairies of Victorian paintings and Disney films. I’m not talking about pretty little silver-voiced beings flitting around on butterfly wings and sprinkling magic dust. The current trend draws on older legends of sinister, shape-shifting entities inhabiting a supernatural realm that impinges upon our own.
Although that realm is rarely glimpsed, we are always in danger of straying across its border. Unlucky travellers might stumble across hidden entrances in hills and mounds, or take the wrong path in the woods. Others might be drawn in by irresistibly beautiful music. Those who foolishly partake of food or drink in that world are unable ever again to return to the land of the living.
Traditional lore describes fairies as quick to anger, hard to appease and overly keen on mischief. Fairies are fond of stealing our possessions, tying our hair in knots as we sleep and tricking us into losing our way - and that’s when they’re being playful.
They are often more malevolent, delighting in causing harm. They might force people to dance without rest, leaving their victims dying of sheer exhaustion. They might kidnap a mortal and leave behind a fake corpse to fool the grieving family. Or they might steal a human child, leaving a “changeling” -- one of their own alien offspring -- in its place.
This dark side of fairy mythology features in the new season of True Blood as well as in the latest book from New York Times-bestselling author Jennifer McMahon. Her novel Don’t Breathe a Word revolves around the disappearance of a young girl who, shortly before vanishing, had told her brother about a door leading to a magical land where the Fairy King lived.
McMahon recognises the old folklore’s sinister power: “It’s wonderfully creepy stuff,” she says, “and it taps into some ancient universal fears that are kind of hardwired into our brains, whether we want to admit to it or not.”
She seems to be correct. That folklore emerged during an older way of life, a rural existence still intimately associated with, and in awe, of nature, and the little people should have faded away long ago. Yet hints of their presence remain.
Janet Bord’s book Fairies: Real Encounters with Little People, for example, contains accounts of surprisingly recent fairy sightings, while folklorists suggest that the purported aliens of UFO stories could be the modern-day equivalent of fairies.
Whereas we might once have heard of a traveller stumbling across a fairy mound, its entrance open to reveal strange beings within, now that traveller might encounter an unearthly craft containing small humanoids. And accounts of alien abductions do bear similarities to tales of being taken to fairyland.
Perhaps the boundaries between the “real” world of human experience and the “imaginary” fairy otherworld are less rigid than we think.
From what the older legends tell us, that could be a cause for concern.