Changing the Map: The Metamorphic Nature of Faerie

Located on the edge of the fantasy map is a strange and perilous realm where those that venture are changed and altered, and where the landscape itself shifts treacherously underfoot — the land of Faerie. Don’t bother listening to Siri or Alexa for directions, even old-fashioned paper maps are of no use here.

The true nature of Faerie, that magical location filled with fairies, elves, and marvelous landscapes, is one of metamorphosis. The basic concepts are altered, down even to an atomic level — the rules of science are not obeyed. Things in this fabulous realm are not what they seem, and will change the moment you turn your eye away. Here cats talk, dragons exist, and elves abound. You “transcend reality” and “escape” the human condition (Jackson 2). You are “displaced” and “jolted” into alternate worlds (Sandner 8), some stranger than comfortable, you experience horrors and darkness at times beyond comprehension, along with beauty so perilous it may freeze your heart forever. From Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, through Peter Beagle’s The Last Unicorn, to Ellen Kushner’s Thomas the Rhymer, the mutable nature of Faerie, that changing nature, of the land and its inhabitants shine through.

As Moorcock notes in Wizardry and Wild Romance, a Study of Epic Fantasy, “An intrinsic part of the epic fantasy is exotic landscape. This dream-scenery is fundamental to the success of any romantic work” (Moorcock 45). Not only is the landscape necessarily exotic, but the creatures that inhabit it as well.

And the settings of these three books reflect the definition of metamorphosis as “change of physical form, structure, or substance, especially by supernatural means” (Merriam-Webster). In Alice in Wonderland nothing is as it appears, not Alice herself, nor the landscape, much less the inhabitants. Likewise, in The Last Unicorn, where the unicorn herself shifts through forms and Haggard’s castle dissolves, and in Thomas’s time in Elfland in Thomas the Rhymer. Things change, they morph, they reflect the multiple true natures of reality. “‘You think you know Faery — but all the songs and tales you know are the palest shadows of the truth” (Kushner 74).

“Fantasy is nearer to poetry, to mysticism, and to insanity than naturalistic fiction is. It is a real wilderness, and those who go there should not feel too safe” (Le Guin 145). The best realms, like the three created by Carroll, Beagle, and Kushner, dare us to change our perceptions of reality.

Alice in Wonderland — Absurd Metamorphic

Wonderland itself is essentially nonsense, an absurd place where the Footmen are fish, where babies mutate into pigs, where a white rabbit worries about the time, and in the end, all dissolves. This is fantasy as an absurdist dream, a metamorphic imagining of reality, one we enjoy entering into, along with Alice, even if it is unstable.

Metamorphosis, with its stress upon instability of natural forms, obviously plays a large part in fantastic literature for this reason. Men transforming into women, children changing into birds or beasts, animals interchanging with plants, rocks, trees, stones, magical shifts of shape, size or colour, have constituted one of the primary pleasures of the fantasy mode (Jackson 81).

Alice’s size changes throughout the book. “It was so long since she had been anything near the right size, that it felt quite strange at first; but she got used to it in a few minutes, and began talking to herself, as usual, ‘Come, there’s half my plan done now! How puzzling all these changes are! I’m never sure what I’m going to be, from one minute to another!'” (Carroll 63). The basic nature of her form is thrown into question.

Houses appear out of nowhere. “As she said this, she came upon a neat little house, on the door of which was a bright brass plate with the name ‘W. RABBIT’ engraved upon it” (Carroll 43). The basics of Wonderland are never what they seem, shifting and altering to present different aspects, reflecting our own world in the transitions.

The Cheshire cat appears and disappears. “‘And I wish you wouldn’t keep appearing and vanishing so suddenly: you make one quite giddy!'” (Carroll 76). Everything in Wonderland is metamorphic, changing every time Alice looks away, and sometimes, even when she’s looking directly at it.

And of course, in the end, Wonderland vanishes into a pack of cards. “At this the whole pack rose up into the air, and came flying down upon her; she gave a little scream, half of fright and half of anger, and tried to beat them off…” (Carroll 141).

Wonderland is in the end a dream, that most metamorphic of worlds we all enter into each night.

The Last Unicorn — Perilous Metamorphosis

Metamorphosis also abounds in The Last Unicorn, from the unicorn herself, to the town of Hagsgate, and Haggard’s castle.

At the start, the band visits the town of Hagsgate, cursed and transformed from a barren land into a garden. “From that moment, we have known nothing but bounty. Our grim earth has grown so kind that gardens and orchards spring up by themselves — we neither to plant nor to tend them” (Beagle 86).

Through Schmendrick’s spell the unicorn herself is changed, altered, into the Lady Amalthea, yet still she has the magic of the unicorn inside her, the magic of change. “‘I want to know how she broke Mabruk’s magic without saying a word. I want to know why there are green leaves and fox cubs in her eyes'” (Beagle 123). The unicorns themselves are metamorphic as well, emerging from the sea at the end of the book.

“The waves were coming in under the thick, swirling sky, growing as slowly as trees as they bulged across the sea. They crouched as they neared the shore, arching their backs high and high, and then sprang up the beach as furiously as trapped animals bounding at a wall and falling back with a sobbing snarl to leap again and again, claws caked and breaking, while the ugly birds yelled mournfully” (Beagle 156).

Haggard’s castle exists only on his sufferance. “‘What I forget not only ceases to exist, but never really existed in the first place'” (Beagle 116). As Rosemary Jackson, in Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion notes, “Fantasy, with its tendency to dissolve structures, moves towards an ideal of undifferentiation, and this is one of its defining characteristics” (Jackson 72), made literal in this book, as, in the end, the castle dissolves into the ocean. In this, fantasy is closer to surrealism — the boundaries between reality and enchantment blur, making the land of Faerie difficult to define. “She turned and saw that the towers were melting as the unicorns sprang up the cliff and flowed around them, exactly as though they had been made out of sand and the sea were sliding in” (Beagle 193).

Finally, even time is metamorphic in the world of Faerie and The Last Unicorn. “Things happened both swiftly and slowly as they do in dreams, where it is really the same thing” (Beagle 186). Again, note the resemblance of the realm of fantasy to dreams, where all logic is suspended.

Thomas the Rhymer — Metamorphic Elfland

The Elfland of Thomas the Rhymer’s visit is full of danger and beauty, with landscape and inhabitants altering at will. The landscapes of Elfland, of Faerie, represent trueness, an elevated reality, and as such they strive to present all forms of that reality, from all seasons being present at once, to time itself being yet another element subject to change, to speeding and slowing. In Thomas the Rhymer, Thomas enters the realm riding on horse behind the Queen of Elfland, past the portal of “reality” into the realm.

“‘Now bid farewell to sun and moon, and to the leaf on the tree. For we have passed the boundary of Middle-Earth'” (Kushner 68). They cross over a river of blood, and when Thomas looks again, they’re on a great plain, then, after a single leap from the horse, they’re in an orchard, where all seasons are present.

The grass here was too green, the trees’ bark shone with silver; their pink and white blossoms — no, they were fresh green leaves — were summer-rich boughs of peaches and apricots — were the ripe tang of autumn fruit….Every time I looked, I saw and breathed a different season. It dizzied my senses (Kushner 69).

His first view of the world is that it is uninhabited, but the Queen shows him otherwise and they morph out of the land.

“Lady,” I asked, “are there no inhabitants to this land?”

She turned in the saddle and looked at me quizzically. “But, Thomas — they are all around you! Haven’t you seen them? . . . You must learn how to look. It will come to you in time. . . Look at that tree . . . Look sideways.”

I turned my head away, and out of the corner of my eye I caught the glimmer of a woman’s figure standing by the tree. . .” (Kushner 76).

In Elfland, everything more real, truer to its own nature, then in our world, which is but a reflection. As Rosemary Jackson notes, “Fantasy establishes, or discovers, an absence of separating distinctions, violating a ‘normal’, or common-sense perspective which represents reality as constituted by discrete but connected units” (Jackson, 78). As seen through Alice in Wonderland through the modern fantasy of today, the land of Faerie alters our perspectives, changes our views. In Faerie, nothing is as it originally seems.

Even the light in Elfland is metamorphic. “Only at the high table were there real wax candles burning — but their golden light met the blue torches’ at the edges in a dapple-green, as if the feasters at that table dined at picnic in the greenwood. I watched, fascinated, trying not to be repelled at the changes the light made on face and clothes, telling myself that, after all, it was only light, no more” (Kushner 87). In fantasy the basic concepts shift and mutate, as if matter itself has been remodeled.

The light itself, what is taken for granted in reality, alters again and again. “It was strange to see that no matter what color the clothing first appeared — and they were all hues, from earthy copper and garnet to the blue of sky and shadow — in different light all turned to some shade of green, as if there were a third plane to the cloth’s weaving beyond the warp and weft” (Kushner 113). This faerie shows us the alternate dimensions and possibilities present in our own world through its metamorphosis.

The landscapes of Elfland, of Faerie, represent trueness, an elevated reality, and as such strive to present all forms of that reality, reveling in their metamorphic nature. Truth is not unchanging in Faerie, facts are not immutable. Instead, truth is change, the ability to transform the inner being, the inner nature, to reveal all different aspects. In Faerie, a rose is not always just a rose. Instead it is an ideal, presenting both the beauty of the petals, and the deadly nature of thorns.

“The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril: both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords” (Tolkien 1).

These realms are shifting, as are their inhabitants and even the fundamentals, such as the ground beneath our feet, can be altered. We go there to be astonished, amazed, and perhaps undergo a metamorphosis of our own when we return to reality. There is no point in carrying a compass or keeping track with breadcrumbs and landmarks, no use listening to the computer assistant, which will only tell you to make “a legal u-turn” over and over again, for the true map of faerie is unknowable, and only able to be perceived in a glimpse out of the corner of your eye.

“We are in this fairyland on sufferance; it is not for us to quarrel with the conditions under which we enjoy this wild vision of the world” (Chesteron 72) (“Fairy Tales” 70-73).

Works Cited and Consulted

Beagle, Peter. The Last Unicorn. Norwalk, Connecticut: Easton Press. 1968, 1996.

Carroll, Lewis. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. New York: Barnes and Noble Classics. 2005.

Chesterton, G.K.. “Fairy Tales.” In Fantastic Literature, A Critical Reader, edited by David Sandner,  70-73. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger, 2004.

Jackson, Rosemary. Fantasy, The Literature of Subversion. New York: Rutledge. 1998.

Kushner, Ellen. Thomas the Rhymer. New York: Bantam Books. 2004.

Le Guin, Ursula. “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie.” In Fantastic Literature, A Critical Reader, edited by David Sandner, 144-155. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger, 2004.

Moorcock, Michael. Wizardry and Wild Romance, a Study of Epic Fantasy. Austin, Texas: Monkeybrain Books, 2004.

Sandner, David. Fantastic Literature, A Critical Reader. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger, 2004.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary Online.

Tolkien, J.R.R. “On Fairy-Stories.” Tree and Leaf. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1965.




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