December 28, 2020

When Is A Fairy Fair? By Priya Sridhar

Editor’s note: I love this deep dive into the good and bad aspects of the “the Folk.” And since “Diamonds and Toads” is one of my all-time favorite fairy tales, this essay was especially appealing to me, and I hope you’ll love it too. KW

The "fairies'" within fairy tales are often fascinating. Some are inspired by the Folk, those from European and Celtic mythology. Their favor can win you a happy ending where the hero or heroine marries into royalty and becomes royalty, no strings attached. Yet some curses can leave you lurching, or begging for any end regardless of if you end up burned or executed. “Diamonds and Toads” has the favor for the lead, who ends up with jewels every time she speaks, and the curse for her stepsister, who ends up starving in the woods in some versions. 

Fairies aren't always the benevolent butterflies with human bodies. (This image became popular in the Victorian era, to the point that two girls convinced Sir Arthur Conan Doyle that they had found fairies.) Instead, you have the luck of the draw. Some fairies will test you, with great rewards. Others won't care that your family insults them, and you receive the curse. The best solution is to be generous and polite. 

The Secret Test

Quite often, the fey in a tale will set certain tests. They will ask a child or an adult to do them a good deed. If the human succeeds, they will receive an award, usually gold. When a human is rude or selfish, however, they suffer a huge punishment. Obviously, the lesson is to be generous to strangers because you would rather avoid a curse if possible. 

The fascinating part is that the fairies tend to serve as a catalyst, rather than go through a character arc. When they give the blessing or cast the curse, the protagonist carries the weight of the story. The fairies tend to disappear, as the magic plays out within the established world.

Often, fairies disguise themselves as old beggars who are hungry or thirsty. They ask for a sip of water or a bite of food. The Fair Folk don't need food necessarily, but they want kindness. We never find out why, but the virtuous heroes never look a gift from a fairy in the mouth. (A sixth sense? KW) It's often best not to reject a fairy gift, or you may receive a curse in turn. Some Celtic folklore has tales of farmers being cursed when they don’t use a fairy gift. Always carry extra food, in case you meet a new friend on the road.

We see fairy tests most often with siblings and step-siblings. "The Golden Goose" features an old man that asks three woodcutters' sons for food when they have to go out. While the foolish third child is generous, his older brothers aren't. Both of them refuse to share their meal of bread and wine.

As a result, the brothers suffer serious injuries when trying to gather the necessary firewood. To add insult to injury, the third child is given sour milk and stale bread when he goes to chop up the lumber, but his food turns into a rich feast which he and the old man share. The old man also gives him a golden goose and warns him to take care of it. Then he vanishes into the dark.

The old man is a crucial catalyst for the story. He lets the youngest son set out with a reward, and fades into the cover of the trees. The youngest son carries the rest of the story, along with the goose, as numerous people try to take a feather or rescue those who subsequently get stuck to the bird. It's a choice that lies at the heart of the story. The old man didn’t care about the food. He wanted to see what someone would do in the darkness of the trees when no one else would see them.

Another wrinkle to the goose: anyone who touches it gets stuck to the feathers, and people who rescue them get stuck in turn. Either the fool doesn't notice the steadily growing line of people behind him or refuses to care. It’s certainly not a nice gift, for those unlucky enough to let the glinting gold tempt them. But Folk do not care if their gifts inconvenience others in the crossfire. 

Some versions of the tales go further. When a princess notices the youngest son, she laughs at the people stuck behind him and says she wants to marry him. Her father vetoes that since the boy is a woodcutter’s son and not nobility. The old man returns and says he’ll help the boy. When the king sets three impossible tasks—find a man who can eat a mountain’s worth of bread in a day, a thirsty person who will swallow enough wine to fill a cellar, and a boat that sails on water and land—the old man delivers on all three. He ensures that the king runs out of excuses to prevent the marriage.

Why does the old man come back? He says the boy was kind to him, and that it’s unfair of the king to set such conditions. The king got on the fairy’s bad side. He was lucky that the old man only fulfilled the tasks and didn’t go further. A little bit of kindness prevented more chaos from occurring.

On that note, some pragmatic people in fairy tales try to exploit this loophole. If they or a relative do a good deed for a fairy, the family can soon become rich. "Diamonds and Toads" as well as "Mother Holle" tackled this very issue when a greedy stepmother realizes that two girls with fairy rewards are more lucrative than one. Usually, she sets her blood daughter out to complete the same task that the stepchild accomplished, and the blood daughter ultimately cannot recognize a great task or do a kindness. This backfires horribly for her and her mother. 

"Diamonds and Toads" is the better-known of the two. The first girl speaks kindly and shares what she has with others. Her stepsister is rude and selfish, refusing to even give a stranger a sip of water. Both are asked by a strange lady or a soldier for a share of their water. The kind girl is blessed with diamonds, gold coins, and flowers coming out of her mouth, while the other releases hordes of frogs, snakes, and bugs when she speaks. One marries a prince, and the other tries to replace her, or dies alone in the woods. Either way, the tale doesn’t end well for the stepsister. 

The main difference is that the stepsister cannot be kind even for a selfish purpose. Her mother finds out about the girl receiving a gift and sends her outside, telling her explicitly to be nice and they’ll be rich for life. Yet the stepsister remains rude to an old woman when the latter asks for some water. She pays for it when the fairy vanishes—but promises that bugs and reptiles will come out of her mouth for every cruel world.

We get the contradiction of "moral deserts.”  Because the kind sister doesn't know she's getting a reward, her generosity is more meaningful since she expects and seemingly wants for nothing. Meanwhile, the selfish sister knows that she could receive a blessing of diamonds while refusing to consider that it may go the other way and leave her with snakes and frogs coming out of her mouth.   

Later versions would point out the problem with the blessing that the kind girl receives: anyone who can sprout jewels from her throat when she talks becomes a target for gold diggers. Flowers may also have poky stems and thorns. Her stepmother can confiscate the jewels and use them as currency, perhaps to buy tinctures or more water. This makes the girl more vulnerable than she was before, while her stepsister has often learned to be resourceful and use her gifts. 

The fairy at the well is a karma enforcer, but not a consistent one. She gives one girl a gift that is pretty on the surface but potentially consequential, and the other a curse that could lead to her death if others shun her. It is fairly arbitrary on a closer look, and a sign that not all tests have the same grades.

Curses Gone Wrong 

Then we have fairies on the other side who are not that nice. They don’t give the hero a chance to prove themselves because the said hero is a baby.

The most obvious cause would be “Sleeping Beauty.” In this story, the princess is only a baby when a fairy doesn’t get her proper invitation or hospitality at the christening. Other fairies are giving gifts, promising that she will be beautiful, musically gifted, and virtuous. This bad fairy decides to instill a curse that the princess will only live to be sixteen.

Doesn’t this seem to be harsh? If anything, the parents should be the ones cursed. They either forgot to send an invitation or failed to set out the proper silverware, depending on the versions that you read. Yet an innocent baby has to bear the burden that her parents failed with etiquette. 

Meanwhile, the good fairy left for her christening gift can’t undo the curse. She admits she is not powerful enough. Instead, death will become an enchanted sleep for one hundred years. It’s not good enough, but it will have to do. The good fairy watches over the princess, to protect her when the time comes. 

Later fairy tale rewrites and adaptations would justify why the good fairy could not remove the curse entirely. Robin McKinley had a bit to say about the subject, while Disney’s film established that Maleficent draws powers from the forces of evil while the good fairy magic can only be drawn from the heart. 

Then again, the wicked fairy is said to be unreasonable, especially as you go into later adaptations. You can’t break the curse, only meet your destiny on your terms. Sure enough, the princess does that. She finds an old woman weaving with a spindle, and desires to touch it. Cue the hundred years’ sleep.  

As soon as she casts the curse, the evil fairy disappears. She is once more a catalyst but still has a strong presence in the story. The kingdom fears what will happen when the curse comes to light, and the king orders all the spinning wheels burned to prevent that terrible fate. Her gift is not only mean, but it allows for no middle ground or amends. 

The good fairy also vanishes for a small portion of the story. Then she reappears after the princess touches the spindle, deciding to put the entire castle into an enchanted sleep until the curse is broken. She notes logically that everyone will outlive the princess otherwise. The decision has the added effect of ensuring a stable government is in place.

One concern emerges, however: no one in the castle consented to having an enchanted sleep. They didn’t do a good turn or a bad one to deserve it. Thus the injustice persists, that the good fairy’s motivation is about the princess’s comfort and not others wishes. 

If you are in a fairy tale, and you meet an old man or woman demanding water or food, it’s best to comply with them and abide by sacred hospitality. Share a meal with them, and accept their gifts. This will also protect any children you have, from potential curses. While the Folk are not fair, you at least have some warning on how to avoid disaster.


Bio: A 2016 MBA graduate and published author, Priya Sridhar has been writing fantasy and science fiction for fifteen years, and counting. Capstone published the Powered series, and Alban Lake published her works Carousel and Neo-Mecha Mayhem. Priya lives in Miami, Florida with her family.


Images, in order, are “The Golden Goose,” by Mabel

Lucie Atwell; “Toads and Diamonds,” by Gordon Laite; and “Sleeping Beauty,” by Arthur Rackham.


Kelly Jarvis said...

Love this look at fairy gifts and curses. It almost seems as if the fairies sometimes operate as a personification of fate or luck; the people who encounter them must do their best to live with whims of the fairies! Lovely article!

Stephanie said...

Interesting essay! And honestly, isn't the lesson we ALL need: be kind always? 💖🧚‍♀️

Katew said...

Love the fate or luck idea!

Katew said...


Unknown said...

Nice article. I enjoyed the look at the way the good neighbors play in narrative.