" Soon I think the King will gather us,
and march us down into the shadows under
the world where the old people go.
Too late the Sons of Adam will cry:
' Where are the children of the Earth? '
Gone. Look for, but you shall not find them.
Weep...For they are gone forever."
Thus ensues the bittersweet ending of The Corpse, Hellboy's first published encounter with the Fair Folk. Though Hellboy succeeds in rescuing the child replaced by a changeling from the Faeries, the reader is left with an odd sense of loss or incompleteness. The Faerie's plea, or rather admonishment, is not met with sarcasm or dispute, merely silence on the behalf of our hero. In a fact a whole panel of silence, suggesting a period of introspection not often expressed by Hellboy. For most readers the idea planted here is promptly lost and soon after, Hellboy is back in form, beating down opponents with incredible strength and characteristic gritty disposition.
And yet, within this speech is an age-old theme of the gradual and eventually complete annihalation of the creatures of magic from the earth, replacing them with the cold hard advance of technology. Many such beings, such as the Baba Yaga, already feel their time on Earth is past, retreating to the realms of Faerie; in her case "...beyond the Thrice-Nine lands in the Thrice-Tenth Kingdom" In this essay I plan to show the evolution and origins of this theme in literature and folktales, the examples and parallels of this theme expressed throughout the Hellboy mythos, and finally, the personal effects of this theme on Hellboy himself.
For almost all fantasy writers, focusing particularly on those who do not stray beyond the realms of Earth, there is an often underdeveloped idea that at one point the irrationalities of primitive societies were as much accepted fact as the the scientific boundaries and laws of today. Then, at an often oblique time, the age of magic began to decline, giving way to the mundanities of the modern world. In some cases this is described as a definite event, happening long in the past. For others, it is an encroaching reality, with a few stragglers still managing to coexist in this world with humans, often only on the fringes of human society. This precedent is not the invention of modern-day post-Tolkienists either, by any means.
In Irish, Scottish, and Germanic folklore this is touched upon frequently. In some cases there are documented folk tales of people who claim to have seen the Faeries up and leave, often in a single file, solemn progression. For the Celts, the retreat starts as soon as the humans first set foot on the island of Eire. A huge battle drives the Sidhe underground, and later further down untill they all but vanish, the remaining few becoming more and more diminutive in size to reflect their declining importance to the human world.
For the Norse, the end of otherworldly involvement with Midengard was much more dramatic, going out with a bang instead of a whimper. The all-out battle between the Aesir and the Frost Giants, Ragnorak, not only devided mankind forever from the Alfar ( elves ) and Dwarrows, but also destroyed all but one of the gods in an allegorical twist that, in modern interpretation, is buried in irony.The Greco-Romanic myths, on the other hand, provided no end to the gods' rule and, like the Roman empire itself, they merely stagnated until entropy.
From mythology into folklore, there is, as early as the seventh century, a German folk tale often entitled The Retreat of the Dwarves, describing a mountain full of Dwarfs up and leaving this world. According to Briggs, " By the fourteenth century, the fairies were supposed to have left the country, either recently or some time ago".
Even in Chaucer's Cantebury tales this is often mentioned, the Wife of Bath placing their departure "manye hundred yeres ago", in the equally-legendary time period of King Arthur. She further states that " ...now can no man see none elves mo" Hugh Miller, in the nineteenth century, recorded the rather miserable final departure of fairies from Scotland, the last fairy in the calvacade stating, " The People of Peace shall never more be seen in Scotland." An old man named Will Hughes is at one time recorded in The Folk-Lore Journal by Oxfordshire's A.J. Evans as witness to the final dissapearance of the Faeries from England, after a final dance near the Rollright stones, but reports of fairies in Britain continue well into the twentieth century.
The Irish and Highland Scots, on the other hand, though admiting that fewer believe in the "wee folk" now, do not even pretend to think they are gone. In her introduction to the aptly-named book, The Vanishing People Katherine Briggs quotes a poem by Bishop Corbet placing the departure in pre-Reformation England:
" But since of late Elizabeth,
And later James came in,
They never danced on any heath
As when the time have been. "
In the twentieth century, however, starting with Tolkien, this theme takes on a rather different tone. The Lord of the Rings, in an attempt by Tolkien to create a mythology for England itself, could hardly avoid the fate of the Elves. Instead of a sore procession, however, Tolkien imbued the departure with as much majesty as ever.
The elves, and several "elf-friends", boarded great ships that set sail for the Undying Lands. The scene is reminiscent of Arthur's departure to Avalon, to sleep until he is reawakened to lead the British (or, more accurately, the Welsh or Cymru) to new glory. Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain follow suit, ending with the great leaders and magic-user's of Prydain's legendary age departing in a ship, while the Fair Folk shut the gates to their kingdom for the last and final time. Even Eilonwy, who choses to remain behind, must first remove the magic she inherently possesses.
The most recent interpretation of this theme I've come across is in the White Wolf role-playing game Changeling: The Dreaming , wherein the Faeries depart from the Earth , for the most part, shortly before the Renniasance and return during the ressurgence of "glamour" after the moon-landing of '69.
The reasons behind the departure of the Faeries are as diverse as the stories. For some it was merely the presence of man, an all-dominant species that does not, will not coexist with other intelligent lifeforms. Other suggestions claimed it was the advent of Christianity, a religion that did not hold with the recognition nor tolerance of spirits of any sort. It is true, at least, that the Fair Folk were described several times by the church as demonic, if not demons themselves. This is probably the origin of the idea that the Fae must pay an annual tithe to Hell. Even church members who did not condemn the Fae outright, referred to them as fallen angels who were "not quite wicked enough for Hell." On another level, there is also the " Tinkerbell " theory that is popular among philosophers...that faeries cannot exist without belief in them, making them dependent on, if not the creations of, mankind.
Additionally there is the idea that the Fae cannot live around, or are somehow intrinsically opposed to technology. Hence, as the world grows more modern, the Fae retreat further back. This theory is supported by the Faeries' well known weakness to cold iron. Of course, one can interpret that as simply a historical truth; any side fighting with bronze weapons is susceptible to an army that weilds iron ones.
In Hellboy, the expressed theme of the loss of magic from the world, or, more accurately, the end of the time when magical creatures dominate or are welcome in reality, is ever-present. Wake the Devil runs with this theme accutely, from the Women of Thesely to Hecate herself, there is a sense that these are creatures who are past their "time" and are desperately trying to return the world or alter the world to the point where they again are able to exert dominance over mankind. Rasputin, in his talk with the Baba Yaga in the epilogue, is obviously trying to postpone leaving the earthly planes. Baba Yaga becons him, " Stay with us. Your journey to this place has been too long. " Others of his kind, the kin of Baba Yaga, already left the Earth. Rasputin refuses, holding on to the mortal coils. Alot of Hellboy stories seem to carry an undercurrent suggesting that all these supernatural things he encounters don't belong in this time and age. Relics from a past time of magic that are holding on and thus causing problems for humanity.This is closely paralleled by Project Ragna Rok. Nazis long past their time in the world still clinging desperately onto old ideas and dreams. The modern world is no place for Nazis, any more than it is for Faeries. So Hellboy must root them out. Which brings me to my final point...
Where does Hellboy fit into all this? Essentially Hellboy is creature out of his time as well. In fact, it is suggested that he possesses the ability to end the age of man, an act that would seems to benifit supernatural creatures somehow and is found extremely desirable to them. Or is it? for the most part it is assumed Hellboy's role is to usher in the end of all things. If so, why is this desirable to creatures who are deadset against leaving this plane? Better no one is living on Earth if they can't? And why, then, if Hellboy is acting to the detriment of magical kind, do the Faeries offer assistance to him in A Box Full of Evil? Or are we seeing things to linear?
In Persian myths the world was ended three times already, and Asian mythologies follow similiar circular reasonings. In such a case Hellboy would not end the world as Anung Un Rama, but rather restart it, or reboot it, spiritually speaking. This would make sense as too why creatures who don't want to leave this plane desperately want Hellboy to carry out his "destiny", essentially reverting the Earth back to a point where they control the world again. Hellboy on the other hand, is taking a stand with humanity. Essentially having no more a place in the world than the monsters he fights, he creates a place for himself by doing what the humans can't. Taking care of problems humans shouldn't involve themselves with. If Hellboy tried to settle down and raise a family, I don't think society would accept that. He still doesn't belong. But by doing what he does he demonstrates to humanity his worth. As long as other creatures are willing to break the rules, mankind needs a protector who can play by both sets of rules. As for the Faeries and their motives for helping him...well, the Faerie are a fickle and unpredictable lot.
In conclusion, Hellboy is part of a long tradition of stories dealing with the theme of the transition or end of a magical world in exchange for a modern world. Hellboy as a protagonist is in a unique situation in that he belongs in the former world but has made a place for himself in the new world. Which also means that this theme is another echo of Mignola's stated series theme of "nature vs nurture."