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The Triumph of the Dilettantes: Top Ten Fairy Books July 7, 2012

Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary, Modern , trackback

Beach has spent this summer putting together a bibliography of fairy texts. And while doing so he found himself wondering ‘what are the best of these hundreds of titles?’ The question has, in fact, been building up in him and after some reflection he has jotted down here ten books that offer the most entertaining and the most thorough fey education.

Looking over the list there is one other thing that has struck him and that he throws out there for what it is worth. Of the ten great books included below only two are by academics: and of these Diane Purkiss is atypical.

Beach can’t think of any other area of history – except perhaps Jack the Ripper Studies… – where ‘the professionals’ have been so convincingly kicked into second place.  Those lecturers and professors who have dedicated themselves to fairies have either not been very good or have not had the staying power.

The following list is alphabetical. Beach would love to hear of any other contributions: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com: à chacun son goût.

Bord, Janet Fairies: Encounters with Little People (Michael O Mara Books, London 1997). One of those ‘pretend’ academics who, at least in the world of faery, are so much better than those supplied by the taxpayer in our universities and colleges. JB not only shows a talent for digging up little known sources, she asks questions that most of us would shy away from, but that remain at the back of our minds. For example, what are all these witness reports of humanoids dancing up and down in night-time fields actually about? How on earth do we explain these ‘visions’, if this is what they are? The present author would not have the guts to ask himself these questions, never mind to set them out in a public place. But JB does this with style and rigour and, crucially, with humour: look out for the goblin train that transform into hikers with peculiar cagoules. It happens to the best of us, Janet.

Briggs, Katharine A Dictionary of Fairies (Penguin, London 1977). Katherine Briggs is the grand dame of twentieth-century fairy writing. A scholar, a storyteller – her interest in fairies was sparked when her girl guide troupe began asking awkward questions – and a gentle-lady of that kind that came out of the Edwardian middle classes. KB wrote five remarkable books and several other interesting ones, but this has to be the most important and the one that will still be read in a hundred years. An encyclopaedia of different fairy types and more importantly fairy questions from ‘Abbey Lubber’ to ‘Young Tam Lane’. This is the kind of book that you can just pick up and flick through when the brown study is upon you. But it is also the one you run to before saying something rash in print. In short, a source of entertainment AND a reference guide: only Brewer’s Dictionary of Fable and the 1911 Encylopedia Britannica can compare.

Evans Wentz, W. Y The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries (Oxford 1911). An early incarnation of the ‘pretend’ academic whose writing trumped all those pre-war dry-of-dusts we can no longer remember. Evans Wentz decided after a few terms at Oxford, c. 1908, that fairies were for real. He travelled around the Celtic fringe from the Hebrides to Brittany, against all odds enlisted five major Celticists to help him, and then offered a series of folk lore accounts from the last generation of believers in the rural west. His explanation for what fairies are matter rather less: there is the stench of mid-late-spiritualism about. But the earlier part of the book has, instead, the aroma of burning peat. A lovely work, full of fairy gold.

Hall, Alaric Elves in Anglo-Saxon England (Boydell 2007). Anyone who reads around the fairies will quickly establish the surprising mediocrity of academic books in the field. This is a recent exception. The author is rigorous and demanding both of his readers and his sources. Certainly, the few early texts relating to ‘elves’ in Anglo-Saxon England and, indeed, through the Germanic continuum are whipped over one hell of an obstacle course, while there are also plenty of glances to later fairy and witchcraft texts. There is much to wonder about here, some things to disagree with, but there is no question that this book has set a new standard for the study of early medieval fairies. It was time…

Harte, Jeremy Explore Fairy Traditions (Loughborough, Heart of Albion Press 2004). Type in ‘fairy’ and ‘history’ into Google or Amazon and this book will not come up in the first ten. In fact, it will very likely not come up in the first hundred. It is though the best modern book written on the British and Irish fairy traditions and for Beach the best book on this list. Again, it is proof of an important rule namely that ‘fairy studies’ is one of the few areas where the dilettantes are better than the ‘professionals’. Jeremy Harte has a foot in academia, he publishes in journals and works in a museum. But he is too fresh and original to be contained in a modern faculty building. How many senior lecturers, for example, would argue the rights and wrongs of building on fairy ground from the point of view of the elves!? Kudos, Jeremy.

Mac Manus, Dermot The Middle Kingdom: The Faerie World of Ireland (Colin Smythe LTD, London 1973). A little known book describing fairy belief in Ireland in the late nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century. DMM was a friend of Yeats and himself a believer in fairies and pulled together here a series of peculiarly vivid accounts of rural fairy sightings at the end of Anglo-Irish ascendancy and then as De Valera’s Catholic ascendancy was shaking the last breaths out of the sidhe.  The constant references to grandfather’s gardeners, cousins, friends, friends of friends is peculiarly Irish pre or post partition: the island is small, after all. But there is none of that saccharine nonsense (‘they had lovely rainbow wings…’) that infects later works on fairies: this is the only work on this list that will give you nightmares.

Pike, Signe Faery Tale: One Woman’s Search for Enchantment in a Modern World (Perigree 2010). Signe has a bad year, starts believing in fairies and then goes on a trippy road trip through Britain and Ireland to meet the little people and those who believe in them. It may be your thing or it may not be, but here we come close to one of the secrets of modern fairies. For the last century or so, those who have been most interested in ‘the little folk’ have been spiritualists, theosophists, hippies and new-agers, the unlikely guardians of a millennial-old tradition. Most folklorists prefer the smell of peat (see Evans Wentz above) and so pretend that the long-hairs don’t exist. But from nineteenth-century séances, through to Signe breathing deeply on Glastonbury Tor this is now where the fairies are at. Ignore these and you ignore the latest incarnations of the mischievous fey, and, btw, a far more interesting incarnation than that on offer from Disney.

Purkiss, Diane Troublesome things: A History of Fairies and Fairy Stories. DP is only our second academic on this list though you just have to read three paragraphs to realise she is an unusual one: nb this book goes by several titles. Her breezy tour through fairy lore from antiquity to Barrie is also at many points controversial. But she is one of these rare individuals who troubles to go back to basics on everything. The results is that, while reinventing some curious-shaped wheels, she gets closer to the essence of things or at least gets at that essence from unexpected directions. This freshness is there in her fairy aphorisms, it is there in the prose – DP is with Briggs the best stylist on this list – and it is there in her maverick judgement calls. Viva Diane!

Sleigh, Bernard The Gate of Horn (London 1926). We’ve limited ourselves to just one work of fiction on this list, but what a work! Bernard Sleigh, a gifted artist, may not have been the world’s most talented prose writer: he certainly wasn’t an outstanding poet, despite some rash attempts here. But in collecting several modern ‘fairy tales’ he casts mermaids, changelings and pucks as natural forces driving out the Victorian hangover. The energy of these supernatural creatures is destructive, inevitable and, more often than not, sexual: giving an edge to a work that our great grandparents would have not have read in the drawing room.  Later this summer it will be the first Beachcombing fairy release in a green hand-stitched cover… Loud purrs.

Spence, Lewis The Fairy Tradition in Britain (Rider 1948). LS was by any standards a strange writer. He dedicated, for example, years of his life to proving the existence of Atlantis with reference to Irish and Mexican mythology: don’t do it, Lewis! Of all his meanderings, his work on fairies has survived best. There is though here a misfortune. It is his other fairy book on Fairy Origins, a stimulating but eccentric monograph, which is endlessly reprinted. Whereas The Fairy Tradition, perhaps the best general introduction to the fairies, is rare. In Spence’s mind this was his ‘source’ book. And while The Fairy Tradition is never tedious the sheer bulk of information can rather clog up your brain. Still there is nowhere else where you can get such a concentration of information in so few pages.

Beach found it torture to keep some books off. What about Carol Silver’s Secret People or some of Brian Froud’s art work or the always mad but always interesting Margaret Murray or Yeats or Narváez (ed) or the great nineteenth-century writers? Beach also restricted himself to books in English: Marjorie Johnson or Brasey anyone?

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9 Jul 2012: A couple of fascinating replies here. As Beach is ‘guilty’ of not including certain books he’s put his own thoughts in square brackets. First up is Loes: ‘As for books about elves, apart from some very well known you omitted from your Top 10, like Wirt Sikes’ British Goblins, of course Reverend Kirks amazing little book, and ‘The Science of Fairytales’, by Edwin Hartland, there’s this book by Eddie Lenihan, ‘Meeting the Other Crowd’ [perhaps I was concentrating on the 20 cent, however, I now feel bad about leaving Eddie Lenihan off which is a marvellous book] – The Fairy Stories of Hidden Ireland, which is all about live encounters, sometimes told in the kind of slang that’s difficult reading for foreigners like me, but really interesting. I also like the books by Theosophist Geoffrey Hodson, who confirmed the sightings of those two Conan Doyle Cottingley girls. Or so he said. A charming book is Tanis Helliwell’s ‘Summer with the Leprechaun’ , told as a true story. But true or not, she captures the atmosphere, a joy to read, as is the sequel ‘Pilgrimage with the Leprechauns’. I ‘m sure I’m not telling you anything new, but nevertheless. There are also two (probably more) wonderful documentaries about elves on DVD: a French one ‘Enquête sur le Monde Invisible’, English subtitles, about elfin matters in Iceland (and monsters too), and an American one by John Walker: The Fairy Faith.   I wish you lots of wonderful discoveries! [very excited about the two films]’ Next comes Diane Purkiss who with characteristic kindness has sent in this thought: Have you considered Lizanne Henderson’s book on Scottish Fairy beliefs? [I have it on my shelves but still have not read it: sorry, Lizanne]  She has no time for me, so this is not a logrolling event.  I also like some pretty books… there’s a book of fashions for fairies, very like some Jacobean poetry….’ Then the also kind Janet Bord: ‘At this point I am wondering if you have come across the Spanish-language books by Jesús Callejo?  I have three, but there may be more.  Duendes (1994), Hadas (1995), Gnomos (1996), all with the same sub-title:  Guía de los seres mágicos de España.  All published by Edaf, Madrid.’ [Ignorant, sorry again.] Thanks to Loes, Diane and Janet!

30/July 2012: Alaric Hall, very kindly has given some feedback. I was glad to see Jeremy Harte’s work on your list–I think he’s a good thing. You might want to consider looking at Wade, James, Fairies in Medieval Romance (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011); and I also like Henderson, Lizanne, and Edward J. Cowan, Scottish Fairy Belief: A History (East Linton, 2001).’ thanks Alaric!

1 June 2013: Beach wants himself to add a couple of books to this list, books that have been reviewed here and that deal with rather different aspects of fairy belief. The first is Dennis Gaffin’s examination of the modern fairy faith as he found it in Ireland; the second is Emma Wilby’s Cunning Folk that look at the interplay between fairies and witches. Both need to be on any serious modern fairy shelf.