By Megan Powell, Hannah Spruce, Yagmur Dur and Magali Prel
This issue, aptly titled “Classic Creatures,” looks into the presentation and portrayal of mermaids and fairies. These character types have been prolific since before the literary canon began. They appear in folk stories and fairy tales, and now we can find them in many examples of fantasy. However, your perception of these creatures may vary from the depiction made popular courtesy of Disney. Here are our favourite examples of mermaids and fairies that challenge the canon, including the origins of Tinkerbell and Ariel.
Peter Pan by J.M Barrie
Peter Pan follows a boy who can fly and never grows up, living on the mythical island of Neverland. Mermaids and fairies are prominent characters in the play. Mermaids are seductive creatures who live in the surrounding waters of Neverland. They are vain and unfriendly creatures who never speak to anyone except Peter, as they enjoy his company. At night, they transform into dark and dangerous creatures who have been said to lure people into the waters to drown them.
Tinkerbell is a fairy and Peter Pan’s companion. She is jealous and obsessively in love with Peter, thus explaining why she attempts to kill Wendy because she views her as competition. To redeem herself later in the play, she saves Peter’s life by drinking the poisoned medicine Peter was about to consume. Peter incites whoever (in the audience) believes in fairies to clap their hands and pronounce their belief to save Tinkerbell. The symbolism behind this action is how important one's belief in magic is for the magic to survive.
The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen
Hans Christian Andersen was a pioneer in the fairy tale world, creating many recognisable characters. In The Little Mermaid, Andersen follows the journey of a young mermaid who longs to turn fifteen so she can swim to the sea surface. When she does, it is love at first sight for the mermaid as she watches the birthday celebrations of a prince onboard a ship. A fateful storm sinks the ship and the mermaid saves the prince from drowning. The mermaid dwells on human mortality and exchanges her voice for a potion from the Sea Witch that would swap her tail for legs. The witch warns her that she can’t return to sea and must marry the prince to secure a soul. However, the prince has an arranged marriage, destroying the little mermaid's prospects, leaving her heartbroken. Her sisters appear with a dagger from the Sea Witch, which they traded their hair for, declaring if she kills the prince she can return to sea. The little mermaid is unable to do so, taking the dagger and sacrificing herself.
Fairy-Land by Edgar Allen Poe
Fairy-Land by Edgar Allen Poe is a dark, romantic poem which describes the journey of a traveller through a fantastical and mysterious land that is home to fairies. Whilst Poe’s narrator doesn’t focus primarily on the physical attributes of the fairies, it describes the surroundings of their home, the forest. Poe’s use of language with phrases such as “dim vales,” “shadowy floods” and “cloudy-looking woods” gives the forest a very gothic feeling and can be read as a juxtaposition to typical imagery of fairies within literature, which depicts them as tiny creatures, who are whimsical, enchanting and, at times, lovable. However, the readers could also interpret Poe’s dark description of the forest as a reflection befitting of other adjectives used to describe fairies, such as mischievous, obsessive, cunning and, at times, having evil, selfish intentions. Further in the poem, Poe’s narrator also stumbles upon fairies who are sleeping peacefully under the moonlight; he describes them as “how, deep! —O, deep, Is the passion of their sleep.” This gives the poem a child-like tonality, showing once again the innocent side of fairies.
La Belle Dame Sans Merci by John Keats
John Keats’ La Belle Dame Sans Merci is a ballad poem, which explores the power of female sexuality. The fairy in the poem seduces a knight, who is left haunted and abandoned by the interaction. Initially, the fairy appears to be saving the knight from his circumstances and provides comfort, due to her beauty and song. The tone of the ballad soon shifts as it is revealed that the knight is one of the fairy’s many victims. Keats uses nature to indicate prosperity by describing “roots of relish sweet, / And honey wild, and manna dew” during the fairy’s interactions with the knight. This is contrasted with the “cold hill’s side,” where “no birds sing,” following the revelation of his fate. The fairy herself is presented as interlinked with the natural world with ‘‘wild eyes” and “long hair.” There is a sentiment of the unattainable male fantasy in this ballad. As a result, it can be interpreted as a representation of the fear of female sexuality during the Romantic period. The ballad has enduring popularity when analysing Keats’ works due to its depictions of the supernatural and unexpected content.