In his essay "On Fairy Stories," J.R.R. Tolkien tells us that fairy tales about the doings of fairies are "relatively rare, and as a rule not very interesting." This may be true of the Western European fairy tales with which Tolkien was most familiar, but it is not true of Hungarian fairy tales. In the Hungarian tales, fairies appear frequently, most often where we would expect a princess. For instance, in "The Woodland Fairy," found in Nándor Pogány's Magyar Fairytales From Old Hungarian Legends, a king cuts down a maple tree, which turns into a fairy (tündér in Hungarian) so beautiful that he immediately asks her to become his wife. He rides back to court, intending to send a carriage for her. Of course we know that in fairy tales, it is dangerous to leave your love, once you have found her. And sure enough, along comes a gypsy who, jealous of the fairy's beauty, tricks her so that she must become a fish, and then a maple tree again, while the gypsy marries the king. Finally, the fairy becomes the gypsy's own chambermaid. The princess who disguises herself as a servant is a common theme in Western European fairy tales, but in the Hungarian tale, it is the fairy who must become a servant to regain her rightful place. When she is asked by the king to tell a fairy tale, she tells her own story, so the king finally recognizes her. The gypsy is sent away, and the fairy becomes queen.
I have summarized this story because it demonstrates how, in Hungarian fairy tales, a fairy is both like and unlike the princesses we know. Like a princess, she is beautiful and virtuous; in "The Woodland Fairy," she refuses to punish the gypsy and instead sends her away with a bag of gold. And in the end, of course, she marries the king. But a fairy, unlike a princess, is also a magical being. She is connected to the world of the forest, the wilderness that is opposed to the civilized world of the court. And she can save herself by magic, usually by changing into a natural form, such as a fish, a bird, or a tree. In "Prince Argyilus and the Fairy Ilona," also found in Pogány's collection, the king owns a tree on which grow golden apples. Every night those apples are stolen, and when the king's son Prince Argyilus keeps watch, he discovers that the thieves are fairies who appear in the forms of ravens. Here, again, we find a magical tree at the center of the story; the king's tree is so tall that when Prince Argyilus climbs it to find Fairy Ilona, the fairy queen with whom he has fallen in love, he finds the houses of the sun, the moon, and the winds. But the sun, the moon, and the winds do not know where to find her. Finally he must ask the animals, and a lame wolf takes him to the castle where she is held captive by a witch. The conclusion of the story is reminiscent of both "The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood" and "The Black Bull of Norroway"; Prince Argyilus must free Fairy Ilona by waking her with a kiss, but only at the right moment, and he must himself stay awake until that moment comes. On the third night, he manages to stay awake, kisses the fairy, and defeats the witch by putting her to sleep. Of course the story ends as fairy tales do, happily ever after.
But, as Tekla Dömötör says in Hungarian Folk Beliefs, "[g]entle and beautiful fairy girls fit for a royal marriage exist exclusively in fairy tales." The fairies of folklore are considerably more ambiguous. They live in natural places, such as lakes and streams (often in underwater palaces), and are capable of dragging a man into the water until he drowns. Although in fairy tales fairies and witches appear in opposition to one another (1), in folktales there are a number of similarities between them. They both fly through the air, and both fairies and witches are known to dance in rings. Both also resemble one of the most interesting supernatural beings of Hungarian folklore, the "fair lady" (szépasszony). Fair ladies are beautiful women with long hair, who can appear either naked or in white dresses. Like literary fairies, they can transform themselves, appearing with a horse's hoof, or in animal form, or in the form of a lover. They can also become invisible. And they are always dangerous. They appear in storms and whirlwinds, and tangle horses' manes. They can make love to a man in his lover's form, or dance with him until he becomes ill or dies. Like witches, they fly through the air on brooms. Like fairies, they sing as they fly, beautiful songs that men should not repeat, for fear of summoning them. And like fairies, they steal children. Fair ladies, fairies, and witches are all said to reward the men they dance with, or who make music for them, with treasure, although by the next morning that treasure either disappears or turns into something worthless. In Hungary, Dömötör tells us, flirtatious young women are sometimes known as fair ladies, presumably for their fickleness. However, fairy is also a popular woman's name, Tündér or its diminutive, Tünde. Fairies are particularly associated with two areas: Transylvania, now part of Romania, and Csallóköz, now part of Slovakia, which were traditionally identified as the "Hungarian Fairyland." It is interesting to note that although Transylvania is associated in the Western European imagination with vampires, in Hungarian folk belief it was inhabited by fairies.
Male fairies do appear in Hungarian literature (2) but the fairies of Hungarian folklore seem to be exclusively female. Dömötör associates them, as well as the witches and fair ladies they resemble, with the female demons common to many European cultures, such as the Serbo–Croatian víla. We can also understand them as succubi, or forms of Lilith, the ancient Hebrew demon who is supposed to have stolen children. But perhaps there is another, equally interesting explanation. Fairy Ilona is not simply a character from a fairy tale. Géza Róheim, in Hungarian and Vogul Mythology, identifies her as "the Hungarian version of the fairy queen of European folktale," who lived in Csallóköz. There, she swam in the Danube in the shape of a swan. Róheim argues that she can also be associated with an ancient swan–goddess, the consort of the pre–Christian god of the Hungarians. The word tündér, he tells us, is not exactly equivalent to the English "fairy"; rather, it seems to refer to a female supernatural being who is capable of appearing and disappearing, or making things appear and disappear, and is associated with fate itself. In Transylvania, Dömötör points out, the Milky Way is called the Fairy's Way. Perhaps this cosmological reference points to a greater significance for the Hungarian fairies. Remember the tree with the golden apples in "Prince Argyilus and the Fairy Ilona." Mihály Hoppál, in Studies on Mythology and Uralic Shamanism, writes that in Hungarian mythology, the world is separated into three layers, the upper world of the gods, where we find the sun and moon, the middle world of men, and the lower world of the dead. These three worlds are connected by a tree whose branches support the sky, while its roots go down into the underworld. On its branches, according to folklore, grow golden apples that are stolen every night by fairies. Hoppál tells us that the shaman must climb this tree to gain wisdom. So, the story of Prince Argyilus may be the fairy tale version of a shamanic journey. (3) Perhaps Róheim is correct, and Fairy Ilona is the fairy tale version of an ancient goddess whom the shaman must find and awaken. Or perhaps Fairy Ilona represents a part of the shaman himself. Hoppál tells us that birds, like the ravens in the fairy tale, were thought to represent the shaman's soul, and that his journey was often represented as flight.