Nowadays we associate them with gold dust and eternally sweet faces, but the fairy is a sort of monster. Southeast Asia’s “yaksha” nature spirits gobble up stray travelers, the Germanic “erlking” can kill a kid with its bare hands. Elden Ring’s Malenia, Blade of Miquella, emerged from a rotting blossom with tangled wings, and is renowned as one of the most dangerous creatures FromSoftware’s ever created. She fits right in.
When I was a child, fairies were something to lure and, if I was dedicated enough, one day become. I read children’s books with instructions on how to attract fairies to your backyard with the dedication of a small scholar—I had never considered the magical properties of a bottle cap dosed with sugar before—and spun around in wings touched with iridescent cellophane, swinging around a silver wand trailing beads.
In line with more neutral global fairy myths like the African “aziza” who blessed hunters, or the Scottish Seelie Court who didn’t outright kill all humans, I saw fairies as logical extensions of nature’s mercuriality, and thus, of myself as a fickle five-year-old with arms too chubby and useless to hold back my emotions. Fairies were not heroes, certainly not, but they commanded their delicate, flowery frames with dignity and a commendable, dark bite.
I found the first video game fairy I encountered, the Great Fairy in 2006 action-adventure game The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess—a game my friend’s brother played with sullen teenage reverence—surprisingly docile. Or, not docile, but…her eyes looked puffy and sad when she sat in that fountain and praised Link. Still, a spayed fairy is better than no fairy, so when I got a Nintendo DS in 2007, I decided to play The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass.
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I was pleased to see three more fairies, Ciela, Leaf, and Neri, act as Link’s companions and the player’s in-game cursors. But these colorful orbs of light were also surprising to me. Ciela’s joie de vivre seemed to originate in her twinkling around Link, not in bubbling near brooks or playing practical jokes. That was a far cry from the behaviors I had come to expect from what I considered to be serious fairy literature, illustrator Cicely Mary Barker’s 1923 Flower Fairies of the Spring and her truly life-changing “journal” Fairyopolis, published posthumously in 2005.
But social expectations took their toll, and as I got older I began to see video games as just that thing most older brothers and male classmates did after school. These expectations convinced me that that the video game fairy’s role could only be that of a mere companion. To me, this acquiescence was based on fact.
Brentilda in 1998’s Banjo-Kazooie, Ribbon in 2000’s Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards, Stella in 2010’s Dragon Quest IX, all confirmed that, because fairy mythology is often female-coded and because games are often marketed to men, fairy women in games were doomed to occupy limited auxiliary roles like “informant” and “background healer.” They were designed as unquestioningly loyal and terminally chipper, plucked from woodland homes and rivers and bluebells only to have their interesting wings clipped. They don’t soar or willfully take what they want the way their mythic predecessors did. They, instead, stay pinned to their new, unnatural habitat: a male protagonist.
Into this pool of baggage steps the golden toes of Elden Ring’s Malenia. But Elden Ring brilliantly diverges from expectations, making Malenia a striking antithesis to the fairies who came before her.
With a first-phase character design more reminiscent of another female-coded myth—the spirit-guiding valkyrie, Norway’s leader of battle-tattered souls—Malenia looks like war. She plays like it, too. Between her HP regenerating every time she hits and the infamous Waterfowl Dance, a slashing attack that has been called “undodgeable,” Malenia has been unofficially coronated FromSoftware’s hardest boss. Players wouldn’t dedicate countless hours of game-time solely to defeating her if she wasn’t so formidable.
Unlike some shrimpy video game fairies, Malenia is made strong because of, not despite, her fairy-like form. This fairy does not remain stuck in the background. Appearing to you naked and maimed, deceptively tender and feminine, she’s reduced to her true, brutal nature. “But she whose hours of tenderness were gone / had neither hope nor fear,” William Butler Yeats writes about the fairy princess Niamh in the epic poem The Wanderings of Oisin.
A rotted flower blooms and butterfly hordes come to her aid, poking you, stabbing you, inflicting you with her nature, much like how disfigured European changelings swapped themselves out for the purity of human childhood, or how 17th century fairy scholar Robert Kirk’s death was attributed to being stolen by the creatures. Malenia is a boss who wants to inflict your essence with rot, eliminate the totality of your personhood with quick, simple death. Fairydom is the world’s horror story for capturing the capriciousness men often prescribe to womanhood. When women like Cicely Mary Barker flip this horror story into inspiration for girls like me, Malenia becomes the video game fairy I always wanted.
There’s one problem (there always is). Look at her name, “Malenia, Blade of Miquella.” Video games just can’t help themselves, can they? On paper, this fearsome fairy is but a companion, no more than a tool for her sleeping, twin brother Miquella.
But unlike Link or the protagonist of Dragon Quest IX, Miquella is absent from gameplay. In his absence, Malenia is a champion—perhaps his champion, but still a winner in her own right—and her existence creaks open the window of possibility for female video game characters. If I had Malenia 15 years ago—her success, not only as a character in Elden Ring, but also as a benchmark of game difficulty and design—I’d have seen that games were for more than the red-faced boys in class. I would understand that women in games don’t need to volley between pretty pink princess, total eye candy, and subdued final girl, though disgruntled internet commenters still insist they must be. No, women can be terrifying. They can be beautiful, and terrifying, and rotten to the core.