I’ve been thinking recently, for assorted reasons, about what I don’t like about Dostoevsky as an author. In doing so, I think, I have come up with a good explanation of what the word “faerie” means. So here goes my attempt to explain it.
One of my problems with Dostoevsky is how he completely ignores the physical world. Yes, he has characters interact with the world, the two main ways being that people have different amounts of money and people get diseases. But their interactions with the world are always anthropocentric; the world has no value in and of itself, as something inhuman. A Dostoesvky book consists almost entirely of people sitting around having conversations with one another. They don’t go out and interact with the world.
Contrast this with a few of my favorite authors – Herman Melville, G.M. Hopkins, J.R.R. Tolkien. They are very different in style and content, but one commonality is that all of them treat the physical world in and of itself as something interesting. So what is interesting about the physical world, and why ought authors to care about it?
I’m going to shift radically for a moment here and talk about people. There is one way to look at the world that separates the “I” from all others; the “I” is the subject, the perceiver, while everyone else is from this view just an object in the world. This way of looking at things doens’t allow us to recognize other people at all; it just allows us to recognize external things.
Another way of seeing people is socially; “obviously” we are all people, we can talk to each other, interact with each other morally, etc. All good so far, right?
But then there’s the physical world, nature – the thing that is part of the “object” of the subject-object way of looking at the world, but is not part of the “society” in the societal way of looking at the world. It is other – neither way we look at the world allows us to consider it similar to the “I”. But it still exists, and is important – God created the heavens and the earth before he created mankind.
It is this otherness, combined with it being created by God, and thus for a purpose, that is captured in the idea of faerie. We men cannot fully understand nature, individually or collectively, but it exists, and was made by God for a reason, though we cannot grasp the reason or even the nature of its existence.
So in this view of faerie, the idea of Elves, of a race separate from us and natural but also somehow rational, is fey because it echoes this separateness; the other race is like us, but somehow not us, and usually more natural-seeming than we are; Tolkien’s Elves do not have the same gap as is between man and nature. Magic itself is fey because it is physical – it is not a direct emanation from God – but it is incomprehensible; it emphasizes the otherness of nature, even as the wielder controls nature.