Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s short story The Child that Went with the Fairies narrates the tale of a poor widow and her four children living in a sublime Irish landscape. While the three youngest are outside playing and the sister and mother are busy doing their tasks, the youngest of all the siblings, Billy, is taken away by the ”Good People” as the fair folk are called in the story. Little Billy returns to his family from time to time until one day he vanishes altogether, never to reappear, and is considered dead.
On the surface, The Child that Went with the Fairies, resembles a typical, supernatural tale where a child is kidnapped by some otherwordly folks under mysterious circumstances and is forever torn apart from his loved ones. But Le Fanu is an astute writer who knows how to add layers upon layers of meaning, rendering his work ripe for various interpretations.
Le Fanu begins with lush, orgiastic descriptions of the Irish nature with bogs and hills and range of mountains. This is the very landscape where Le Fanu himself grew up and lived, thus the tale is presented as a true account.
In the tale, superstitions abound. They are not to be ridiculed. Instead, they are taken seriously and even the priest employs natural means to repel the fairies. The mother, who espouses all this legacy of supernatural tradition, passes it onto her oldest daughter, Nelly. This is a rich cultural identity that has to be transmitted to the younger generations. The local inhabitants possess a strong culture with long-standing traditions that give them a distinct national identity.
As we read the story, we come to realize that one of the themes permeating the narrative is that of haunting. The hill in which the fairies reside casts a shadow that looms over the landscape, frightening the people of the village. But it’s not only their physical presence that terrifies the people but, also, the traditions and strange tales of fear that accompany them. These creatures have the ability to cross the threshold between the world of substance and the world of illusions, between life and death, between form and spirit. The natural laws that govern humans do not touch them. Therefore, they are the ”Other”.
But the field of haunting doesn’t pertain to the fairies alone. The dead can haunt as well. Death, either literal or figurative, is a spectre that torments the family. Billy is considered dead by his mother and siblings. When he comes back to his family’s cabin, only his two young siblings can see him due to the fact that they, too, have come in contact with the fairy realm. The mother and eldest sister, due to being devout guardians of the traditions and cultural legacy, cannot. Later, Billy’s brother will keep on seeing him sporadically and being haunted by his memory. In this way, fairies become a symbol of death.
Another very important theme in the story is that of appearance and illusion. The fairy lady’s beauty and charm are repeatedly stressed. She tosses apples at the children and uses glamour so as to distract them and entices Billy with kisses and caresses. The siblings, despite sensing the malice of the fairies, cannot resist and ”take a bite”. They cannot realize the danger the fairies represent as they are too young to pay heed to their mother’s teachings and warnings. They are too stunned by the lady’s allure. While they’re chasing the apples, they are literally chasing after illusions that will never be materialized or fulfilled, but will only make them stray from the path of safety.
Woven into the narrative is the polarity between the ”we” and the ”other”, or between the nation and the imperialistic power to be more precise. If we substitute the word ”fairy” with ”English”, the tale is viewed under a different light. Le Fanu, conscious of his identity as Irish, makes a merciless critique against the imperial dominance of the English. All the riches and the glorious display of formality of the fairy ceremony hint at the presumed superiority and authority of the English dominance. By virtue of its own long-standing tradition and aristocratic birth, it converts into a predator preying on the one it considers weak and easy to possess.
It is at this point that Le Fanu bares his writerly teeth most aggressively. By striking a comparison between the imperialistic power and the fairies, it becomes evident that since the fairies can rule only through the means of illusion, therefore the imperialistic power lacks substance. Thus, it is unnatural and rotten.
But the fairy lady is not the sole representation of the idea of ”Otherness”. Le Fanu takes care to describe the lady’s companion inside the carriage: a black woman. The black woman is an inherent part of the imperialistic power and its bitter fruit, namely slavery. One could say that her role in the story is, at best, nebulous. It never becomes completely evident what her function is and what her relationship to the fairy lady is.
Le Fanu, once again, returns to his favourite theme, that of the contrast between essence and perception, truth and illusion. The exotic, dark sight of the black woman strikes the children with terror while they are enthralled by the fairy lady, for they perceive malignity in the first who is laughing with some kind of inside joke and beauty in the second.
But appearances can be mortally deceptive. Is the black woman shaking with amusement or fear because she knows what dreadful fate awaits the children at the hands of the fairy lady? Is she stuffing her mouth with a handkerchief so as not to let her amusement be heard or does she force herself to be quiet out of fear of the fairy lady and therefore doesn’t cry out a warning to the children to save them? Is she truly mad at the children or terrified at the thought of what is about to happen to them?
In this case, the black woman doesn’t represent a powerful, aggressive other, but a repressed figure living in perpetual terror under the iron force of imperialism. Her regal, colourful garments suggest that she comes from a rich cultural background. But her position now perhaps indicates that she’s not part of an independent nation anymore but a slave with a strangled voice not allowed to speak. Having that in mind, perhaps the black woman functions as a warning as to what happens when nations or cultures are dominated by others. Le Fanu remarks that her face is a ”death’s head”. In that manner, she maintains a connection with the dead or perhaps one could even point out that her role in the story is to function as a death knell for poor Billy.
While in many fictional works youth and innocence are praised, in this tale they become the very qualities that condemn the children. The siblings cannot perceive the threat coming their way. Troubled by the fearsome aspect of the black woman, they are unable to read ”the writing on the wall”. The person who could be their saving grace is viewed as a malevolent figure while the person who wishes them harm is seen as the angel.
Nowhere in the story is the notion of illusion highlighted more than in the figure of Billy. When the child is last seen inside the cabin he is haggard and his clothes are in tatters. The great splendour of the fairy realm is nothing but a sham. Billy has found no nourishment, no warmth and no affection. He is a tragic figure because while he straddles two worlds he doesn’t belong to either. He is a double ”Other” both in the world of the mortals and in the fairy dimension, stuck in the threshold of two cultures, condemned to wander between these two but never living fully in either anymore.
For all intents and purposes, Billy becomes a figure without identity, without roots. He is dead or perhaps a ghost. In essence, he is wiped out of existence. The fact that he doesn’t have a headstone where he can be properly buried by his family and mourned speaks volumes. There’s no place for him in his family anymore because his identity is non-existent. In fact, Billy is not unlike the black woman. In losing his cultural identity, he becomes an immaterial shadow.
We cannot delve into the mind of Le Fanu so as to claim with certainty what the intended message of the story is. Is the Irish writer providing the reader with a cautionary tale about the danger of what happens when one becomes estranged from their own cultural background and national legacy? Is the focus of the story the evils that befall one from the loss of cultural identity?
As is the case with Carmilla, Le Fanu relishes the game between reliability and unreliability. Credibility and perception are challenged. Are we as readers to believe the children’s tale? Or are we to believe that the villagers and their ways are sound? Are the fairies the wicked ones or are they pitiable figures suffering from malicious and ignorant superstitions? Most importantly, are the children the only ones who misjudge the idea of ”Otherness” or do the adults have to plead guilty as well?
The figure of Billy certainly raises some intriguing questions. We’re often reminded of his beauty. Blonde, blue-eyed and the youngest of the siblings. Is his attractiveness something that sets him apart from the other members of his family? It certainly is. If we take this fact into consideration, can we say that he was naturally destined to be alienated and marginalized by virtue of his physical aspect? Was he doomed from the start?
When reading the story, one notices there’s a common link that connects Billy and the fairy lady. They are both pleasing to the eye, and that’s why they are attracted to each other. Once again, the notion of perception takes the central stage. Both cultures judge based on appearances and surfaces, unable to view the ”Other” as the ”Other” truly is. In a society where illusions and senses reign supreme, what hope remains for unclouded and unbiased judgment?
How is the ”Other” perceived? Is the ”Other” the surface we regard or is there some kind of deeper essence? Are we to project onto the ”Other” our fancies and preconceived ideas or are we to peel away the blindfold and peer into the objective reality?
Is Billy dead or is he forgotten because he embraced another culture? Is he marginalized and estranged by virtue of his association with the fairies or is he an outcast by his family due to his natural ”Otherness”? Is he forced into another culture because his own repels him? But if Billy is a pariah in the mortal world, he doesn’t seem to fare much better in the fairy realm either.
The existence of the black woman adds another layer to the story, highlighting the fact that it’s not a simple matter of ”us” versus ”them” mentality. There are various types of ”Other” and various reasons for the base of ”Otherness”.
Le Fanu has given us a story where the English and Irish cultures violently clash. The issue of identity is an extremely complex one, thus making it difficult to define it and come to a resolution. What is an identity and which are its proper characteristics? Who is the one to give us an identity? Are we born with one or is it forced upon us by our environment? If we happen to differ, can this identity be revoked despite not this being our fault? And if we lack an identity, are we practically non-existent or can we choose an identity ourselves and belong within a culture without fear of rejection due to our ”Otherness”?