On Difficult Fairies

The following reflection was written by first year psychology major Bella Castro. Bella works as a library student assistant in the Outreach Department.

One Friday afternoon, I had the opportunity to visit the “Difficult Fairies” exhibit at the William H. Hannon Library. The exhibit is on display until December 16, 2022 in the Terrance L. Mahan, S.J., gallery on level 3. “Difficult Fairies” explores more than just fairies. This exhibit explores some of the most proficient works of English literature where fairies “seduced, tricked, and ruled.” Fairies did not gain much attention simply because they were considered to be fictional beings. Humans would add fairies into their writings as ethereal characters who did not have to adhere to society stereotypes or human authority.

When you first walk into the exhibit, there is an entrance wall that says “Difficult Fairies” in large letters along with an explanation of what the display holds. The explanation speaks about how British authors used fairies as a mirror of society. There was a notable increase in the use of fairies during the Tudor, Victorian, and contemporary periods. Fairies had the power to break social norms when it came to gender and societal expectations. The art presented in this exhibition shows us how fairies challenged, supported, or complicated the changes occurring during these three historical periods.

The first stop was the Tudor period, which lasted from 1485 to 1603. During this time, fairies became more prominent figures in English literature as the people tried to adjust to the life-altering changes in the world. Two of those specific changes were the Protestant Reformation and the establishment of the first royal colony in the Americas. To better understand society, English writers utilized fairies to analyze and comprehend the drastic changes that were altering their society. The particular work that caught my attention was “The Faerie Queen,” written by Edmond Spenser. This epic poem recognizes and admires Queen Elizabeth I as the Fairy Queen, Gloriana. In this work, Elizabeth is honored and legitimized: the way she ruled is viewed as “just and virtuous.”

rare books on display, plus a red morgan la fay doll.My next stop was focused on the Victorian era, which lasted from 1837 to 1901. During this time period, the Victorians were focused on major social movements which were mainly related to women. Women started to demand legal rights for themselves. This pushed writers to include the “fairy trope” in their literature to “explore how a mythical female body could respond to shifting social perceptions of basic human rights.” As a young woman, I found this sentence to be extremely powerful and creative in relation to female empowerment. Each work on display in this exhibit showcases responses or opinions on the altering role of women. Popular works such as “Peter Pan: or the Boy Who Would Not Grow Up” and “Cinderella and the Glass Slipper” are on display in this section.

The final stop in this exhibition focused on the contemporary period, which starts in 1980 and continues to present day. The role of fairies began to change in the late twentieth century. Increasing advocacy for the LGBTQ community and the Women’s Rights Movement allowed fairies to take on a new role. Fairies could now be “youthful adventurers,” “fallen warriors,” or even “ a circle of religiously liberated activists.” People who read these stories could relate to the fairies and feel a sense of empowerment in knowing that they were not alone. I remember reading “The Rainbow Fairies” when I was younger, so seeing this section in the exhibit brought me back to my childhood and allowed me to feel a sense of comfort.

At the end of the exhibit, I walked out with a newfound sense of appreciation for fairies and the role they played throughout the three time periods mentioned above. I had always viewed them as otherworldly creatures who were magical (and could fly!), so seeing them presented in a different light really allowed me to understand the deep impact that fairies had on individuals. Seeing how Maleficent could be portrayed as both good and breaking gender norms instead of being portrayed as a villain opened my eyes to the possibility of reinterpretation. All in all, the “Difficult Fairies” exhibit is truly magnificent, and I highly recommend taking the time to go and experience it for yourself.