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Review: Running with the Fairies January 28, 2013

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


Scholarly fairy books are rare indeed: they average at about one every four years. Not many at all when you think that a score of volumes on Vietnam are published each month. This infrequency means that it is always extremely exciting when a new member of the fairy family shuffles onto the stage. So, with no more ado, – trumpet blasts, drum rolls… – we present Dennis Gaffin’s Running with the Fairies: Towards a Transpersonal Anthropology of Religion (2012 Cambridge Scholars Publishing).

Perhaps the first thing to say, in case the title mystifies, is that RwtF is not primarily about fairies. It focuses, instead, on the men and women who have, in recent times, based their spiritual existence around fairy beliefs: ‘Fairy Faith’ and ‘Fairy Folk’ are all much mentioned.  The author accidentally ‘stumbled’ into a circle of Fairy Folk in 2004 in Ireland and has been studying their mysticism on and off ever since. Given that fairy religion is a recent but growing phenomenon, this book might be said to be like having an intelligent observer in the room while Gerald Gardner is founding Wicca.

We wrote ‘study’ in the last paragraph. One of the many attractive things about this book though is that the author experienced rather than dissected. He did not undertake to be neutral and he did not smirk or patronize in his interviews. He, in fact, came to believe in the existence of fairies himself (though this blogger left the book not understanding how this happened). Dennis certainly treated the dozen or so Fairy Folk he got to know with respect and, in many cases, with love. You close this book, after two hundred and fifty pages, liking both the author and his Fairy Folk friends immensely.

Now consider for a moment the audacity of an academic at an American university setting out to write a book of any sort on fairies. Consider too that in the course of the book said academic reveals quite routinely that he has not only sympathy with his subjects, but that he has effectively gone over to the Fairy Folk as a believer. This is not perhaps the best way to get tenure… (Let’s hope that Dennis is already there). It is this audacity that, at least in part, explains the tortured way that the book is and, very likely, had to be written.

This comes out in two ways. One is its theoretical nature: Jung, Heidegger, James, inter multi alii, are all brought into the witness box. For a simple soul (like the present writer) this proves too much. DG recognizes the danger when he writes in his preface that those ‘less academically inclined’ might want to skip the first theoretical chapter. Theory though ties the book together: you cannot escape. Maybe it is unfair for a very ‘Anglo-Saxon’ reader from an empirical tradition to complain!

The second tortuous factor is the quality of the thinking that is always preliminary, provisional and wavering. This is, instead, attractive. Quibbling authors, authors who worry about answers, authors who are not sure often make for better guides in difficult subjects. Their thinking is still hot to the touch while they write and their thinking throws up sparks. (Note to self: often in the humanities an expert writes a second ‘mature’ book on a subject that they had addressed earlier in their career and yet strangely they write an inferior book precisely because their thinking has started to close down.)

As to the Fairy Folk… Well, where to begin? It is thrilling to think that on the margins of western Europe a group of intelligent men and women are creating a ‘Celtic’ Sufism. It is wonderful to think that the old Irish glades, the fairy hawthorn, the fairy rocks once energized by peasant communities are being re-energized and becoming vehicles for voyages into the unconscious and perhaps beyond. (You’ve got to get in to get out etc etc.) But to what extent is this something based on an external reality and to what extent is this invented tradition?

The second question interests the present writer, so much so that he had to break off from reading the book just to put down some groundwork for it in another post. There he established (at least to his own satisfaction, ahem) that Fairy Folk could be better positioned than modern witches to exploit genuine traditions. We know fairy traditions very well, we don’t know that much about what early modern witches believed: as opposed to what they were said to have believed. The Fairy Folk seem to recognize this too. At one point one of the Fairy Folk (Carol) says of a fairy sighting: ‘it is such a tragedy that people are so far removed from their culture and their history…’.

And yet what is extraordinary is how the Fairy Folk themselves sidestep tradition. In some cases, the Fairy Folk have added ‘traditions’ for which there is no justification in the native canon: for example, an important part of the Fairy Faith, at least in this particular circle, is the idea that a certain number of fairies – c. 1200 – have been reincarnated into the bodies of human beings. This leads to a lot of fascinating speculation about who is a fairy and who is not: potential fairies include Debussy, Gaudi and James Galway! Think a fairy elite directing the cultural affairs of humanity. So much better than lizard men or Big Pharma.

In other cases – and I find these more disturbing – native traditions risk being debased. So the early modern and modern Irish were very clear that the fairies were ambivalent: they might help but they might hinder (maim you and kill your children). Interestingly nineteenth- and twentieth-century spiritualists and occultists (among them Yeats and to a lesser extent Doyle and Evans-Wentz) accepted this uncomfortable vision of fairies. However, from the 1850s onwards there was a competing idea that fairies are lovely and good, an idea that triumphed in the brook at Cottingley.

The Fairy Folk apparently subscribe to a sophisticated version of this ‘good’ view – with just a few (token?) references to the ‘capriciousness’ of fairies: there is even a chapter here entitled ‘No Bad Fairies’. Dennis criticizes Disney’s Tinkerbell (which I’ve always found surprisingly well done) and Brian Froud for trivializing fairies. The ‘dry cleaning’ of the blood stains from Fairy is a comparable process though. This, of course, does not mean that the Fairy Folk are either dishonest or deluded. For this author it simply demonstrates that while creating a new mysticism the road map of previous traditions is only going to be of passing interest. Paul never allowed Judaism to get in the way of a convert to Christ.

Not that the Fairy Folk will be doing much in the way of converting. One of the many likeable things about this circle is their lack of dogmatism and their almost complete indifference to a wider public. In a world with so many new nightmarish religions the Fairy Folk represents the best we can hope for. Fairy Folk will rarely, we suspect, abuse each other psychologically – the worst episode recounted in the book was a dance in the garden – and they will certainly not strap explosives to their chests and walk into crowded market squares. There is no organization to speak of. Even the word ‘circle’ used throughout this review might be pushing things too far. There are individuals and there are conversations and there are contacts with Fairy (real or imagined).

This was the ‘problem’ in the 1930s-1980s with an old friend of this blog, the Fairy Investigation Society. The FIS too had inherited from spiritualism and theosophy a friendly version of environmental fairies, at odds with the fey of tradition. The FIS like Dennis’ circle were too an umbrella group whose members all had their own eccentricities, eccentricities that made co-ordinated action impossible; had, that is, any of the members wished for a ‘plan’, which in itself would have been unlikely. Again this might make for the nicest possible kind of mystic community: but it means that there will never be continuity. Indeed, between the FIS and the Fairy Folk the only connection worth mentioning is Flower A. Newhouse, a Christian mystic, who was on the reading lists of both. The two independently though came to similar conclusions on many issues: zeitgeist or fairy help or the humongeous shadow of Madam Blavatsky?

Enough for now, the clock has just chimed 12 and this post already stands at 1500 words. Sorry for going on but it’s been a while since I’ve been so possessed by a book. It is to the very great merit of Dennis Gaffin that different readers from different backgrounds will be stimulated, infuriated, heartened and confused by the data, interviews and experiences that he has gathered together here. A century ago Evans-Wentz attempted something comparable to Running when he wrote the Fairy Faith in Celtic Lands. However, Evans-Wentz was a mystic who failed as an anthropologist: the first part of his book is still read today because of the memorates recorded there; the second theoretical part of his book is not scientific and all too often borders on delirium (Atlantis etc).  Dennis Gaffin, an anthropologist writing as a mystic, has attempted something more modest here, but he has succeeded.

Special thanks to Josh for the reference, Dennis for help in getting a review copy and Alan for needling.