The Fae Are Not a Phase, Part IV
Faerie is a fascinating trend taking BookTok and other social media platforms by storm in recent years. For my thesis paper at The New School, I decided to write a critical analysis of Faerie as a tool for writers to provide escapism and explore humanity–and I’m excited to share it with you, part by part, here on my blog!
Part IV: A Court of Beauty–and Beasts
Before Making a Fae Bargain, Read the Fine Print
In A Court of Thorns and Roses–among her other books–Maas’ fae are viscous, seductive, and yet surprisingly human. The first book in the series follows nineteen-year-old Feyre Archeron as she enters the sparkling, dangerous world of Faerie when she accidentally kills a Faerie disguised as a wolf in order to feed her starving family. Whisked away into a world of magic and treachery, Feyre falls in love with the Spring Court’s Prince Tamlin. To save him from an evil Fae’s curse which turned his heart to stone and attached masks to the faces of the Spring Court, Feyre must complete three deadly tasks including defeating a monster, solving a riddle, and even murdering three Fae.
At its core, A Court of Thorns and Roses is a love story modeled after elements of the myth of Hades and Persephone along with Disney’s iconic Beauty and the Beast and Snow White. Like both of these tales, A Court of Thorns and Roses explores what it means to be human in the context of violence, toxic relationships, love, and how they all interconnect.
Many of these themes come into play when Feyre is faced with the classic Faerie trickery that has prevailed throughout much of the history of Fae literature. Similar to the evil Faeries of the past, Maas’ villain, Amarantha, offers to “…make a bargain with you, human…You complete three tasks of my choosing–three tasks to prove how deep that human sense of loyalty and love runs, and Tamlin is yours,” (Maas 301). Putting Feyre in an impossible situation as the protagonist attempts to rescue her love interest, Tamlin, and his Spring Court, Amarantha is amused with Feyre’s humanity–especially the sense of love and loyalty that is uncommon in many Fae circles.
Amarantha hits where it hurts Feyre the most with her tasks, ensuring they force Feyre to grapple with her humanity as an obstacle in each. Despite being mortal and therefore not as physically strong or well-educated, Feyre shows Amarantha how strong a sense of humanity can make her, defying the idea that humanity makes her weak. She exhibits determination to do what she must to rescue Tamlin, even when faced with the most gruesome of tasks: killing innocents. “Refuse and die. Kill three innocents and live. Three innocents, for my own future. For my own happiness. For Tamlin and his court and the freedom of an entire land,” (Maas 389).
Although Feyre killed the Faerie disguised as a wolf at the beginning of the book–the act that brought her to Prythian in the first place–she finds that the situation the third task puts her in is different. “It wasn’t like hunting; it wasn’t for survival or defense. It was cold-blooded murder–the murder of them, of my very soul…. But for Prythian, for Tamlin, for their world and my own…These deaths would not be wasted–even if it would damn me forever,” (Maas 389).
In the moment when she decides to murder innocents, Feyre is making a choice to go against her moral code for the sake of love, showing just how much humans value the feeling of connection–a sentiment which puts her at odds with Fae like Amarantha, who simply uses others for her own gain.
When Feyre unveils her third victim, she reveals Amarantha’s plan to try to use Feyre’s very humanity against her in giving her yet another impossible choice–Feyre’s life, or her love for Tamlin, who is the third hooded figure she is tasked to murder. “Kill him and save his court and my life, or kill myself and let them all live as Amarantha’s slaves, let her and the King of Hybern wage their final war against the human realm. There was no bargain to get out of this–no part of me to sell to avoid this choice,” (Maas 394).
But Maas’ villain can’t understand the moral grayness within the act of being human itself. Even though she isn’t sure her plan will work to save Tamlin, Feyre embraces her own agency, trusting herself to make the right decision based on everything she had learned while being in Prythian. Amarantha underestimates Feyre’s cleverness–and what she is willing to sacrifice for her love of Tamlin and her human family–so Feyre succeeds in freeing him and the Spring Court from their curse: “For a sickening moment, when his blood rushed onto my hand, I thought the ash dagger would go clean through him. But then there was a faint thud–and a stinging reverberation in my hand as the dagger struck something hard and unyielding–” Tamlin’s secret stone heart (Maas 398).
In this scene, Maas not only grants Feyre the chance to take hold of her agency–which had been, up until this point, suppressed by Faerie society and Amarantha herself–but she also makes the argument that love and moral ambiguity, above all values and moral codes, are integral, interconnected components of what makes humans human.
Watching Feyre make a hard choice and deal with the consequences of her actions is a moment that could teach young readers the value of thinking critically before they act–and trusting themselves to make the right decision, even when faced with what seems like an impossible task.
The Unseemly Unseelie
Much like Holly Black in The Cruel Prince, Maas also utilizes the classic Fae tradition of court gatherings as the setting for major plot points throughout A Court of Thorns and Roses which reveal other human truths about determination and agency.
One example of this is when Feyre is told to lock herself in her room, but sneaks out of the protection of Tamlin’s house because she is curious about the mysterious Fae celebration of Calenmai. She soon learns it to be a night of debauchery and magic, similar in ferocity and glittering allure to Jude’s experiences at Faerie parties in The Cruel Prince–but even more dangerous for a human to intrude on, since the Fae involved lose control of themselves. Tamlin’s friend Lucien explains it to Feyre: “‘Tonight, Tam will allow…great and terrible magic to enter his body,’ Lucien said, staring at the distant fires. ‘The magic will seize control of his mind, his body, his soul, and turn him into the Hunter. It will fill him with his sole purpose: to find the Maiden. From their coupling, magic will be released and spread to the earth, where it will regenerate life for the year to come…. Tonight, Tam won’t be the Faerie you know,” (Maas 193).
Much like Jude in The Cruel Prince, Feyre finds herself lacking agency in the party setting, a moment which reveals the truth of her place in Faerie, as well as Tamlin’s darker side, even if Feyre may not fully understand it at the time. Though she doesn’t want Tamlin to complete the rite, as it means he will have to be intimate with someone else, Feyre lacks the power in this moment to push back for what she wants due to the strict customs of the Fae.
Physically, she is even more vulnerable–when she refuses to heed Lucien and Tamlin’s warnings, she finds herself attacked by several dangerous Fae as “they began herding me toward the line of trees, toward the darkness. I pushed and thrashed against them; they only hissed. One of them shoved me and I staggered, falling out of their grasp,” (Maas 187-188).
Scenes like Calanmai help Sarah J. Maas set up the stakes against Feyre, to later show readers that her grit and determination are what set her apart from the Fae. Similar to Jude in The Cruel Prince, Feyre perseveres past powerlessness throughout the text, proving to young readers that, no matter how much they may struggle, they can regain the power in their lives and embrace their strength in spite of society.
Love Conquers All–or Does It?
Within its romantic storyline, A Court of Thorns and Roses also provides a model for both good and bad relationships in a safe space, where young readers can watch the mental, emotional, and physical effects of different kinds of love play out in real time.
Unlike realistic fiction, which may depict relationships in settings young readers are used to, fantasy settings provide a way to decontextualize behaviors and relationships in a way that make them easier for readers to understand and analyze–and in turn, recognize in the real world.
Throughout the book, we see the relationship dynamics between several different sets of characters, including Feyre and Tamlin and Feyre and Rhysand, respectively. Calanmai marks not only one of Feyre’s experiences feeling powerless against the Fae, but also her first encounter with Rhysand, the High Lord of the Night Court and an important character throughout the series.
Though he rescues her from the Fae who tried to drag her away, Rhysand proves himself to be a character who encourages and embraces Feyre’s agency from the start, giving her a choice: “‘May I escort you somewhere in the meantime?’” Rhysand offers when he catches Feyre alone, seeing through her lie that she’s waiting for a Fae friend. “‘No,’ I said, my tongue thick and heavy. He waved his hand toward the hollow–toward the drums. ‘Enjoy the Rite, then. Try to stay out of trouble,’” (Maas 190-191).
Unlike Tamlin, who locked Feyre away and attempted to hide the truth of Calanmai from her, Rhysand supports her in making her own decisions. He offers her a choice, but he is also accepting of her answer, even when it isn’t what he wants to hear. This moment successfully illustrates a small peek of what a healthy relationship looks like for young readers, contrasting Tamlin’s instinct to stifle Feyre’s ability to choose in their budding romance.
By introducing Rhysand as a sympathetic, supportive character, Sarah J. Maas sets him apart from the rest of the Fae who look down upon Feyre. Maas placed Rhysand in the Calanmai scene to act as a foil to emphasize the idea that Tamlin isn’t such a perfect love interest for Feyre if readers are ready to dig a little deeper into the concept of healthy versus unhealthy relationships. At the same time, his presence acts as a sort of safety blanket for readers, softening the stark reality of Feyre’s situation and giving her a friendly face that reappears in her darkest moments.
A Path to Prythian
Another traditional characteristic of Faerie society Sarah J. Maas leans into to expose what it means to be human is the idea of the intricate societal system of Faerie courts. Utilizing worldbuilding in broad, sweeping strokes all the way down to the fine details, Maas paints a picture of a land of glittering courts, all stuck in a never-ending cycle of tension with one another, the nearby kingdom of Hybern, and the humans who live near their lands. In addition to the Spring Court, “the six other courts of Prythian occupied a patchwork of territories. Autumn, Summer, and Winter were easy enough to pick out. Then above them, two glowing courts: the southernmost one a softer, redder palate, the Dawn Court; above, in bright gold and yellow and blue, the Day Court. And above that, perched in a frozen mountainous spread of darkness and stars, the sprawling, massive territory of the Night Court,” (Maas 116). With each ruled by a High Lord, the Fae’s model of social stratification appears, on the surface level, to be more specific than that which most young adults experience in the real world, but the Fae’s court divisions reflect the human need for defined social groups.
From a global perspective, the courts of Prythian could mirror countries, with similar interactions based in ethnocentrism and nationalism. Or, if one zoomed into a young reader’s perspective, the courts could also hold a mirror up to expose the social stratification in an average high school which might put an athlete and a mathlete in different social groups based on interests, talents, and upbringing. Regardless of how broad or narrow the scope, illustrating the concept of social groups in fiction can provide readers with the chance to figure out where they fit in on or off the page–or make them decide to try something new. Maas gives young readers the space to find commonalities between the Fae’s world and ours, leaving room to explore at whatever level they are currently comfortable with, hopefully taking lessons from the book into their own real lives.
The intricate courts of Prythian also play an important role in providing moments of escapism that transcend the page. With each of Maas’ court groups comes a sense of belonging surrounding specific traits and values. For example, young readers who enjoy working with their hands can identify with the Dawn Court, imagining themselves working with clocks or tinkering with “clever things” (Fandom.com). Others who crave a winter paradise could find themselves feeling at home in the Winter Court, envisioning traveling between towering palaces in a carved sleigh pulled by reindeer (Fandom.com).
Although A Court of Thorns and Roses is full of violence and danger, it also provides a whole new world for readers to escape to on the adventure of a lifetime. As they follow Feyre throughout her tasks, readers are not only rooting for her, but experiencing her heroic acts as their own. Although many young people may not feel like heroes in their daily lives, having camaraderie with Feyre as she makes a positive impact on Fae society can empower them to do the same in the real world.
Sarah J Maas: Queen of BookTok
A Court of Thorns and Roses struck a particular chord with readers, who took to social media to discuss their favorite characters and scenes and share homemade cosplays. The book’s popularity on TikTok’s book-interest community, colloquially known as BookTok, helped drive Sarah J Maas’ work into popularity outside of the niche market, reaching billions of readers around the world; #sarahjmaas has more than 1.5 billion views on TikTok alone, and the hashtags for her series–#crescentcity (427.7 million views) #throneofglass (1.1 billion views), and #acotar (4.6 billion views)–only further showcase the online impact her books have made.
But it isn’t just talk–Maas is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author with millions of copies published in hundreds of languages around the world (Barnes & Noble). Maas’ commercial success confirms the viral nature of Faerie books, proving that readers crave the unique blend of escapism and opportunities for the exploration of human nature that the world of Faerie has to offer.
Stay tuned for Part V: The Fae are Here to Stay, the final blog post in my Faerie analysis series!