Wee folk, fair folk, good folk. Faeries travel under many guises and by many names, the mischievous gatekeepers of the small and secret realms of nature. But in all their forms they are irresistible, and humanity’s unified wondering about these oft-invisible beings is no less present in anime. In the latest instalment in our series on supernatural creatures (after witches and vampires), let’s follow the trail of the fae and see where it leads us. But remember, if you end up stumbling through to faeryland, don’t dine at their banquet, for nevermore will you return.
The Ancient Magus’ Bride has enchanted us with the cheek and barely hidden darkness of the faeries, or ‘neighbours’ as they prefer to be known. They stand representative of the duality of magic’s power, that temptation which pulls the foolish and desperate towards their doom. When wilful Chise finds the magus Elias, the master who accepts her for her spiritual abilities, she wants to spill her soul into magical learnings, rescuing lost souls and following faeries, and she thrives and finds herself treasured there. But when she finds the stone archway that opens to such shadowed realms as the fae inhabit, so beloved is their little Robin that they would imprison her as soon as she stepped her tiptoes through the door.
Faery myth is slim in Japanese folklore, the country largely borrowing and building on the west’s wonderings. The fae as a ‘hidden people’ – coincidentally the translation of ‘huldufólk‘ as Iceland, Magus’ Bride’s land of dragons, know their faeries – is a common belief nonetheless, sometimes telling that they existed long before we humans, who drove them into hiding. This is so in Irish myths of the Tuatha Dé Danann, who became known as the mound-dwelling aos sí, the Gaelic good neighbours, still appeased through offerings by followers of folklore who take great care to avoid their anger. These share their tragic end with tales of the Koro-pok-guru told by the Ainu people of the northern Japanese islands.
When the Ainu first came to live among the Koro-pok-guru, the races existed in harmony. They shared land, and the skilled hunters among the faery folk brought gifts of fish and game beasts to the Ainu. But even then, they hated to be seen, and so would trade their wares under cover of night. When one Ainu man waited awake to catch one of the little people mid-delivery, he grabbed the unsuspecting faery by the wrist and dragged her inside his house. She, quite understandably, was incensed at the young man’s presumptuousness, and the story goes that no sign of her people, besides their abandoned pottery and stone tools, has been seen since.
Fearful humans, who perhaps would have no reason for their fear if they weren’t so selfish, have also thought faeries to be spirits of the dead, or demoted angels as used by early Christians to denounce pagan faith. It was once believed in Japan’s Iwate Prefecture that fae, or yosei, could bring the dead back to life. As faery kin, Chise’s abilities are just as overcast by ambiguity, and her own conflicting, self-centred human nature. What’s lost is lost, and yet she is obsessed by abuse in her past, attempting to rewrite it in the here and now.
It is this selfishness of humanity, this claim to control over the world’s reality, that the faeries of Humanity Has Declined represent and stand against in equal amounts. As though taking vengeance for our encroachment on their homes in nature, as the Milesians of Spain drove the Tuatha Dé Danann to forts underground, the fae are now the dominant race in protagonist Watashi’s world. Pastoral ways of building and farming once taken over by technology are the norm again, and the perpetually frolicking faeries conceal how they were or were not complicit in the decline of the human population. Their surface of cheer masks a cynicism they seem to have absorbed from us humans. They are something other than they appear, mocking us with our own false pretences of kindness and unity.
Even when playing the role of spirit guardian and guide, many fae in anime maintain the trickster profile which inspired worldwide folk myth’s fear and reverence. Amnesia’s Orion may wholeheartedly devote himself to helping the heroine recover her lost memories, but it was he who ‘accidentally’ caused her unfortunate condition. Dressed in jester garb, he is ultimately punished and stripped of his faery powers for interfering in the human world, instead reincarnated as human himself.
Like Kaze no Stigma’s Tiana, who convinces her fellow students that their school is haunted for her own amusement, we are a source of fun for faeries. This truth may come across harmless enough, in missing items lesser than one’s own memories, but it remains that we shouldn’t expect them to be sweetly reliable. They have more power than to warrant making nice for our every wish and whim. At the same time, they only have so much control over the material, being of spirit. Berserk’s Puck is a constant companion to Guts, cursed to slay a constant onslaught of demons drawn in by his despair. Though the little imp is one of few who could bear to stay by the Black Swordsman’s side, he is ultimately unable to ease his torment, as it’s born of bodily death, a human ailment.
Instead, faeries are in their element when they can teach humans how to come closer to their most powerful selves, and when they are sure we have an honest wish to dispel doubt and pain in those around us too. In Shugo Chara, Amu is tired of being seen only for her fashionable looks, full of dreams she can’t begin to realise because her true, sensitive self is always ignored. When she wishes to become someone else, to be free of all the false opinions, she wakes to find three mysterious eggs that hatch into her Guardian Characters, Ran, Miki and Su. Tiny in stature and sparkling with happiness, they came to her to be her teachers in uncovering the power beneath her self-doubt. They actively represent her goodness, her creativity and confidence, even though to Amu they are all she is yet to be.
To be approached by one faery guardian, let alone three (or four, as Dia comes on the scene later in Shugo Chara) is to be gifted with a link to magick’s wellspring for empowerment. The fae have seen a vein of great promise in that person’s spirit, and know they need help to grow into their full potential. Just as Chise needs a link to their power and friendship for her best magick, they come to us when there is something more we can bring to the world. A sparkle in the air or the inexplicable sound of bells shouldn’t be ignored, because like Ancient Magus’ lonely little star, you may have stronger powers, clearer eyes to see the mystical than you ever knew.
Faeries in anime, as they do the world over, inject wonderment into every space and every role they fulfil. They are power at its most alluring, bright and intangible. They can bestow our dreams when we show some willpower, sometimes taking something of value to us as they give, educating us that we must sacrifice if we ever expect to receive. They are mysterious in their separateness from our own weakness and frailty that nonetheless charms them close to us. The one certainty in meeting a faery? Adventure is sure to follow.