A Short History on the Dark Side of the Fae

October 18, 2022 | Ames

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We call them The Good Neighbours. The Fair Folk. The Kind Ones. The Wee Folk. The OthersThemselves. We call them by every nickname we can think of that won't offend, won't draw their attention. Because their attention can be a dangerous, deadly thing.

The Fae.

The Fair Folk The Kind Folk The Good Neighbours
The Fair Folk anthology, edited by Marvin Kaye. The Kind Folk by Ramsey Campbell. The Good Neighbors: Kin by Holly Black. Just some examples of the nicknames we give them, and stories about how they are not fair, or kind, or good.


Not the tiny, winged creatures that live at the bottom of the garden and befriend lonely children. Oh no. These are the ones with laughter that sounds like the screeching of a hawk. The ones with faces and features so keen, it's blinding. The ones who steal children, trap mortals in their realm, and offer bargains for a cost so steep that only the desperate would pay.

These are the fae featured in Not Your Fairy Godmother, the latest exhibit at the Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation & Fantasy. The exhibit explores the dark side of The Good Neighbours. There are tricksters, evil queens, bad bargains and duplicitous lovers. It runs until Saturday, December 31, 2022 and is open during regular Merril Collection hours.

If you're too wary to come in person, here are a few highlights of the exhibit to discover.

About the Fae

A Field Guide to the Little People book spread
From A Field Guide to the Little People by Nancy Arrowsmith. The Little People, or the Wee Folk, was a way to refer to the lesser fae.

The word "fae", like the word "fairy", has three different theories of origin. One theory suggests that it is based on the word fata, Latin for fate, which referred to the kinder, almost godlike beings that would oversee children's births. Another is that the word comes from the French verb faer, meaning "to enchant". A third theory suggests that it is an abbreviation of "fair folk", one of the most common nicknames of the fae. It referred to both their appearance, for they were usually described as pale, as well as their obsession with truth and lies, bargains and payments.

Knowledge of, and belief in, the fae can be traced back thousands of years. Writing about the fae became particularly popular in the 1200's. After fading from literature for a time, a resurgence of writings started in the Victorian era of the early 1900's and has continued to the present day.

Regardless of the name used, the fae are generally understood to be more than mere mortals, but less than gods. They are associated with nature, have magical powers and an inclination to interfere with humans. Throughout history they were associated with ghosts, spirits, demigods, demons and devils. In Irish and Scottish folklore, they are known as síth, sídh, or sidhe – which are all pronounced "shee". They once lived in our world but were driven out to a realm of their own by humans wielding iron weapons. Some can still be found in dark forests, talls mountains and deep waters. And not just in the British Isles. Fae can be found all over the world, although they go by many different names.

Yuki-onna book spread
The Yuki-onna is native to Japan. A beautiful snow spirit, she can be found in blizzards, misleading wary travellers. Her face is the last thing they see. From The Mythic Bestiary.
Jishen Taifeng book spread
The Jishen Taifeng lives in the central mountains in China. He grants sunshine or rain to those he favours, but can use the elements to mislead travellers and cause floods. From Fantastic Creatures of the Mountains and Seas: A Chinese Classic.

Fae are notorious for taking a special interest in children. The kind ones are known as the tooth fairy or a fairy godmother. The cruel ones steal children for their own, often leaving a changeling fae child in their place.


Children of the Fairies book spread
A depiction of the fae stealing a child in The Leprechaun's Kingdom.


In many legends, changelings are sickly in appearance. They may have notable physical characteristics such as a beard or long teeth. Parents could recover the original child by confronting the fae thief, making the changeling laugh or torturing it. This latter belief was responsible for numerous cases of child abuse. Medical experts now believe some changeling tales developed in an attempt to explain disabilities and neurodivergence in children.

Fae will steal adults as well. They are particularly fond of musicians and poets and will take them away to their realm for their entertainment. They also take humans who offend them and transform them into strange creatures or keep them as servants.

Two versions of Tam Lin
In some versions of the story of Tam Lin the bard, he went willingly. In others he was kept against his will.


These are just a few examples of what they may do. Beyond what we have in Not Your Fairy Godmother, there are many more ways to learn about the bad neighbours.

Recommended reading

Fairies a Dangerous History

Fairies: A Dangerous History by Richard Sugg

A scholar of folklore, Richard Sugg offers a very thorough look at the belief in, understanding of, and history of fairies in the Western world. Similar works have been written by many other notable fae folklorists and enthusiasts such as Katherine Mary Briggs, Diane Purkiss and Brian Froud.

Finding Fairies

Finding Fairies by Alexandra Rowland

If you choose to ignore common sense, this is a contemporary guide to finding the wee folk in our modern environment. Should you regret your choice, it also includes assistance for what to do when a fairy gets hold of your email address and won't let you unsubscribe, or if they have cursed your devices.

Faeries of the Faultlines

Faeries of the Faultlines by Iris Compiet

Iris documents and illustrates her experiences with the fae, and the space they inhabit where our world blends into theirs.

Rosemary and Rue

The October Daye series by Seanan McGuire

McGuire recounts the life of half-fae October Daye. In her job as a Private Investigator she has many unfortunate encounters will full-blooded fae. In the first book of the series, Rosemary and Rue, October has just returned to the human realm after spending fourteen years as a fish for getting in the way of a fae lord.

Shadow of the Fox

Shadow of the Fox series by Julie Kagawa

Yumeko is half kitsune. In possession of a magical scroll, Yumeko must hide her supernatural nature to save herself and find allies to save her kingdom. Kitsune are a type of yōkai: mischievous or even evil creatures in Japanese folklore. Kitsune are humanoid with fox ears and tails that they can hide with illusion magic. They often seduce unwitting humans and play tricks.

The Devourers

The Devourers by Indra Das

Alok, a college professor in Kolkata, India, encounters a mysterious stranger. The stranger possesses several extraordinary scrolls that relate a fantastical story of demi-human forest dwellers. These people preyed on humans, eating their flesh and consuming their souls. But as Alok dives deeper into the story, it may not be as mythological as he thought.

More to Do

They aren't the only creatures of the night to be wary of. Join us on Wednesday, October 26, 2022 at 7pm for a talk on Things That Go Bump in the Night. Discover ghouls and ghosts, vampires and werewolves, beasts and monsters lurking in the Merril Collection. Get up close with our books and artwork while you enjoy a talk from our costumed staff.


After your visit, consider carrying a small piece of iron, a four leaf clover or salt in your pocket. Turn your shirt or jacket inside out. Just for a little protection, in case they are watching.