True love. Straw spun into gold. The skill of a master carpenter. Fairy tales and folklore are filled with stories of fey bargains and goblin merchants that have the power to grant your heart’s desire…or make your worst nightmares come true. It’s a delicious idea. Is it any wonder that many modern fantasists (myself included) have taken up this thread of story and woven it—sometimes deeply—into their own tales?
Below are five of my favourite modern fantasies prominently featuring fairy bargains of one kind or another. Peruse them as you would the wares of a goblin market, though I’ve tried to throw in a free snippet of advice with each, as a lesson for when you strike your own fairy bargains…
The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly — Featuring The Crooked Man
After David loses his mother to a terrible wasting disease, she is replaced by both a new stepmother and a new half-brother. But David can still hear his mother’s voice, and one day he wriggles through a hole in the brickwork of his stepmother’s home and finds himself in a strange fairyland.
Getting back might be easy, and getting back with his mother at his side, alive and well once more, might be easier still, provided David is willing to make a simple deal with The Crooked Man (a terrifying fey figure known for stealing children). All he would need to do is speak his little half-brother’s name aloud to The Crooked Man. Simple.
But David is well-read in fairy stories (boy, can I relate to that!). He knows how dangerous bargains like this can be. And so he chooses to try and fight his way home the hard way. Remember that, should you yourself ever have dealings with the darker of the Good Folk: sometimes the wisest deal is not striking any bargain at all.
The October Daye Series by Seanan McGuire — Featuring The Luidaeg
The Sea Witch. When it comes to fairy bargains, few names are so well-known or so justly feared (or revered). And this classic figure takes on a new life in the October Daye Series by Seanan McGuire, striking bargain after bargain (though she would often prefer not to). Some of these bargains minorly advance or enable the plot, and some provide fodder for the plot of an entire novel, with repercussions carrying throughout the series.
The Luidaeg is, if anything, as wondrous and dangerous as any of the many bargains she strikes throughout the series. While I adore fairy bargains, I just might adore the character of The Luidaeg even more. Shocking, I know! But sometimes you can’t resist a person, just like sometimes you can’t resist a good bargain…
Because that is a truth of dealing with Fairy and her two-faced offerings: sometimes you have to make a deal just to survive, or you cannot resist being offered your heart’s desire (because without it life would no longer be worth living). Of course, that doesn’t mean you should make a deal with just anyone. If you must strike that deal, think carefully about who you do business with.
Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik — Featuring the Staryk King
There are Fairy Bargains and then there are Deals with the Devil, and Spinning Silver has both! Miryem, the daughter of a Jewish moneylender, makes a deal with the Staryk King to turn silver into gold, though she is initially less than happy with the reward she is surprised with after the third time she manages this feat. Irina, the new tsarina, however, finds herself entangled in a deal of a different sort, with a demon at the other end of it.
The thing about either kind of deal is that they cannot be broken lightly, if they can be broken at all, and this is where another of my favourite aspects of such bargains come into play: the loopholes. And Spinning Silver accomplishes their use beautifully.
Fairy tales have long taught us how to exploit that gap between the letter of a deal and its spirit (which is only fair, as fey-folk and demons do the same all the time!). So if you can get away with trading away your ‘sole’ instead of your ‘soul’ you should do it! Always remember the power of loopholes!
Between Two Thorns by Emma Newman — Featuring Lord Poppy
In the world of Between Two Thorns, certain families have fairy patrons. Please these patrons, and you may receive a boon. Anger them, and you may find yourself terribly cursed. This take on dangerous dealings is fascinating because not only does it involve a deal, the deal involves the granting of three wishes.
If there is anything more dangerous than a fairy bargain, it’s a wish. Catherine Rhoeas-Papaver is determined to get the most out of her three wishes, however, and in so doing escape the deal that Lord Poppy has trapped her in.
When making a fairy deal it helps immensely if you are clever. That’s one of the things I find so delightful about this tale. Cathy is clever. She’s carefully planned out her first wish, just in case she ran afoul of the good will of her family patron. So if you ever find yourself with the opportunity to strike a fairy bargain, remember: be clever! (It also helps with finding loopholes!)
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke — Featuring The Gentleman with Thistle-Down Hair
In Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Faerie has several kingdoms that touch upon the mortal world, most notably through the presence of The Gentleman with Thistle-Down Hair, who is ruler over a number of them. It is Mr. Norrell who first summons and then strikes a deal with the Gentleman, an act that has repercussions throughout the novel.
This bargain is devilishly difficult to deal with for multiple reasons. Firstly, the Gentleman collects what he is owed in an unexpected manner (though when dealing with the Fair Folk you would be wise to expect this sort of unexpected complication). Secondly, in attempting to defend his due, the Gentleman meddles widely and deep in the affairs of mortals, causing further trouble for our titular characters.
Even if you think the price is something simple, something obvious, be wary! It very well might not be exactly what you expect. Clarke uses the idea to stunning effect here, and it’s one of the reasons I adore the book so much. So be warned: when you strike a fairy bargain consider carefully the costs, and what myriad forms those costs might take.
There you have it! 5 books (or series) where fairy bargains play a pivotal role in the story, alongside a bit of advice in case you ever find yourself striking a dangerous deal of your own! Hopefully this prepares you for your next trip to see the sea witch or barter with the merchants of the goblin market. And if it doesn’t, well, don’t say I didn’t warn you!
Trip is a writer, a doctor of the academic persuasion, and a researcher of all things pursuant to bargains, exchanges, and compacts of a faery nature. It is inadvisable to attempt to make a deal with him. He has been, in the past, a reluctant cowboy, an Ivy League collegian, and an itinerant marketing professional. Mostly harmless.