Updated: May 20, 2020
The Unseelie Court
In our last post about fairies, we delved into the Victorian fascination with the topic and their depiction as delicate maidens with wings, flitting about the fields. Today we are going to dive deeper into what has been called "the dark fae" or the Unseelie court.
Light vs. Dark - Defining Terms
Myths and legends are often broken down in to two sides - one is often portrayed as good and the other as bad. Often, those sides have characteristics that storytellers use as shorthand to show their persuasion; beautiful was often seen as good and ugly was often seen as bad.
We can't ignore the sins of the past when disabilities were included in this categorization. We also can't ignore the bias that light can be seen as good and dark can be seen as bad, leading to subtle (and not so subtle) racism. I'd like to make it clear that when I use the term "dark" - such as in this post and in my novel, The Dark Lady of Tintagel, this term has no such connotation. Dark is used here to explore stories where the character deals with hidden mysteries, unknown powers, shadowy motives. It has nothing to do with any commentary on goodness or evil.
The Summer Court and the Winter Court
That said, earlier storytellers used the terms Seelie Court and Unseelie Court to break down fairies into the usual dichotomy. The Seelie Court, The Summer Court, are generally described as benevolent and beautiful fairies - still mischievous and still meddling with humans, but usually portrayed as kindly (in their fashion). The Unseelie Court, The Winter Court, are more complicated and usually are portrayed as having an axe to grind against humans.
They may not need a reason, but the dark fae can be portends of trouble, even death.
A good comparison would be to look at brownies and boggarts. Brownies, which would fall in the Seelie Court, are mischievous but usually helpful. They help around the house and enjoy gifts of honey or milk from their human housemates.
Boggarts, on the other hand, are a brownie gone bad and considered part of the Unseelie Court. Boggarts get angry with humans and curse them, causing havoc until the human makes amends. You do not want to get on the bad side of a boggart.
You can think of the earlier stories of Seelie and Unseelie as similar to the Justice League and the Legion of Doom. The lines weren't very blurred between Superman and Bizzaro, were they.
Modern Stories and the Dark Fae
In modern myths and stories, the Unseelie Court isn't as cut and dried. Dark fae artwork often shows figures that are lovely with an aesthetic that favors more somber tones.
Even Disney got into the rehabilitation of the dark fae with their series on Maleficent. What's exciting about the modern interpretations is that we are getting characters with conflicted emotions, with layers of positive and not so positive traits, backstories that explain why the character does what they do. Stories where "villains" have a reason for why they do what they do (and perhaps aren't villains at all) really intrigue me and the dark fae are the perfect vehicle for exploring that.
The Gray is Where the Juicy Bits Live
Summer vs Winter, Light vs Dark, Good vs Evil...the dichotomies aren't going anywhere, but I'm always on the lookout for stories, artwork, music and film that tries to show the gray in-between, because that is where all the really juicy bits live. The conflict, the pathos, the tension, the pain and the redemption. There can be great beauty in darkness and their can be selfishness in the light. Here's to more stories with characters from both Summer and Winter, bringing mischief, humor, revenge, anger and love to their tales.