Once upon a time, there was a book about gnomes. It was called Gnomes. It detailed the lives and habits of these funny little creatures with plenty of colourful illustrations, just as you might explain the lives and habits of a woodland animal. It was rather fun and cosy. (One reviewer said it had a “a determined jolliness”.) When it came out in 1976, it was a bestseller, and US publishers Ballantine, who’d recently started publishing large-format paperbacks of fantasy artists’ work (including Frank Frazetta, Gervasio Gallardo, and one Brian Froud), decided to try for a similar success with a book about fairies. So they asked Brian Froud and Alan Lee (who were sharing a studio at the time). The thing was, Lee and Froud didn’t believe in the gnomely domestication of fairies. They knew them to be feral and free, defined — if they could be defined at all — by their very inability to be pinned down, diagrammed, explained or made merely fun, cosy and pretty. Fun they could be, but also naughty, sly and wicked; pretty they could be, but also ugly, strange, cartoonish, elegant, beautiful and horrific; cosy they could never be. If the gnomes of Gnomes were a garden creature, to be found in well-ordered & bordered patches of managed nature, the fairies of Faeries were the wilderness and the wilds, the tangles and briars, the wildflowers and toadstools, the crooked trees and marshy bogs. When it came out in 1978, the book proclaimed its inability to provide an accurate taxonomy of the various kinds of fairy:
“One species shades into the next, so it is difficult to state precisely where a Bogie ends and a Bogle begins… no sensible rules apply to terminology or, indeed, any other aspect of Faerie — it is a law unto itself.”
The result is a work of art rather than a merely amusing book. What Lee and Froud did was to provide a true picture of the imaginative fact of Faerie, the realm of the wild & weird presented in all its grotesqueness, playfulness, darkness and light. Brian Froud, in his introduction to the 25th Anniversary edition, talks of a “healing strength” people have found in the book. This may come from its frankness, as each fairy, pretty or ugly, invites you to see a little bit of yourself in it — only not the civilised, normalised bit. Unlike the chocolate box variety of fairy art, Faeries doesn’t present images of perfect, dainty ladies and children, beautified with gossamer wings and mystified with moonlight, it presents (oddly) something far more normal-seeming and un-idealised, though normal only in its strangeness, its reminder we’re all so different from the norm. Faeries belongs to the same tradition as Richard Dadd’s Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke, which may have depicted a gathering of oddball faerie types, or may have shown the inmates of the Bethlem Royal Hospital where Dadd resided after killing his father. (And, as a little bit of fairy magic, I’ll point out that Alan Lee was a classmate of Freddie Mercury at the Ealing College of Art, and that Mercury, with Queen, wrote a piece of music called The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke that’s as sublime as the original painting.)
It’s odd to think Faeries was made into a short-ish animated film, for kids, in the US (which you can watch, in three parts, on YouTube). It can’t hope to do more than hint at the spirit of the original work, but some of it’s there, in cartoon versions of the book’s illustrations, mostly to be glimpsed in passing, in the background — hints at the true realm of Faerie behind the inevitable TV compromises:
After Faeries, Froud and Lee got lots of film & book work, including a host of excellent fantasy films (The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth, Ridley Scott’s Legend, Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings). So, it could be said, they lived happily ever after.