Magical Folk: British and Irish Fairies, 500 AD to the Present by Simon Young & Ceri Houlbrook (edd) - review by Kevin Jackson

Kevin Jackson

In the Court of the Seelie King

Magical Folk: British and Irish Fairies, 500 AD to the Present


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Fairies are notoriously touchy, and are apt to turn nasty if anyone is foolhardy enough to call them by that name. Should you ever find yourself in their company, you would do well to shun the F word entirely and follow the example of earlier generations by using some form of apotropaic euphemism, such as ‘the good people’ – a standard formula, it appears, on the Isle of Man.

In Ireland, these beings have in earlier centuries been called na daoine uaisle (‘the noble people’ or ‘the gentry’) and na daoine maithe (again, ‘the good people’). In Wales they have been called tylwyth teg (‘the fair family’) and bendith y mamau (‘their mothers’ blessing’). The Scots have referred to the sluagh maith (yet again, ‘good people’), the good folk, the honest folk, the fair folk, the good neighbours, and so on. And Puck, still the most famous fairy in English literature, ahead of Tinker Bell, sometimes goes by the name of Robin Goodfellow.

Such traditional modes of sycophancy to supernatural forces will be immediately familiar to anyone who remembers that the Furies in the Oresteia are known as ‘the kindly ones’: you use flattering terms or you are destroyed. The fact that country people throughout these islands have all felt the need to use such nervously deferential formulations is the most forcible reminder that our modern conception of fairies as cute, elusive butterflies of love owes far more to Victorian illustrators and the Disney empire than it does to folklore. Sad to say, A Midsummer Night’s Dream – or, at any rate, would-be ‘charming’ productions of that very strange masterpiece – has also helped foster the twee view of Faery, as William Empson pointed out in a hilarious review of an Arden edition of the play: ‘We need here to consider Madeline Bassett … [who] has a habit of saying, for example, that a dear little baby is born every time a wee fairy blows its nose.’

The older manifestations of British fairy folk, though they could at times be helpful to mortals, tended to be obnoxious and spiteful – ugly little hooligans who led night-walkers into bogs, stole horses and food, and generally deserved to be slapped with ASBOs. At worst they were terrifying. They might kidnap children, leaving deformed or stupefied ‘changelings’ in cradles, or carry innocents away to years of captivity in fairyland, or even resort to murder.

Magical Folk, which contains a wealth of material on the folkloric fairy (though strikingly little about the huge and fascinating subject of fairies in our literature and art), is a collection of sixteen essays by various authors, each one devoted to the specific legends of Ireland, Scotland, Wales and assorted English counties. This arrangement allows for a good deal of detail on local mythology, but inevitably (since our islands are too small to foster profound differences in fairy yarns) leads to repetition and, at times, surfeit.

One of the best chapters, by the volume’s coeditor, Ceri Houlbrook, gives a lively account of fairies in Scotland. Her main source for this section is Robert Kirk’s influential study The Secret Commonwealth, first published in 1691. Kirk, who was a church minister in Perthshire, held that fairies were beings ‘of middle nature betwixt man and angel’, and that to doubt their existence came dangerously close to atheism. It was widely believed that Kirk possessed the second sight, which allowed him to observe creatures that were invisible to others; on his death in 1692, so the locals said, his coffin remained empty and he went to live happily ever after under the Fairy Hill.

According to Kirk, Scottish fairies were all aristocrats, and belonged to one of two noble households: the Seelie (‘Blessed’) Court, largely benevolent to humankind, or the Unseelie Court, foe to man. Sir Walter Scott, tongue in cheek, seems to have been of the view that Scottish fairies were more given to malice than English ones, perhaps because of the harshness of the land in which they lived: ‘we should naturally attribute a less malicious disposition, a less frightful appearance, to the fays who glide by moon-light through the oaks of Windsor, than to those who haunt the solitary heaths and lofty mountains of the North.’

Malevolent or not, the fairies of Scotland were rather magnificent, closer to Greek gods than to Scandinavian trolls: skilled horsemen and musicians, bold hunters, graceful dancers and eternal revellers. In the wonderful supernatural ballads ‘Tam Lin’ and ‘Thomas the Rhymer’ – alluded to but not cited here – the experience of being ravished away to fairyland is clearly akin to the descent into the Underworld in Homer and Virgil. Irish fairy lore shows even stronger similarities to classical mythology, often representing fairyland as the realm where the dead go to dwell. In some versions, the fairies and the dead are, if not quite one and the same, then at the very least bound up with each other in complex ways, as the great folklorist Katharine Briggs demonstrated some decades ago.

English fairies are usually a rather less impressive breed. The pixies or piskies of Devon are largely tiresome and are much given to the sport of leading travellers astray by night, though sceptics have suggested that the actual cause of such mishaps is probably cider, not sprites. Yorkshire was the site of the famous Cottingley fairy hoax, and Worcestershire probably supplied Shakespeare with material for A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Tolkien with the lead character of The Hobbit.

The last three chapters investigate how Britain and Ireland exported fairies to the New World. Opinions on the success of this enterprise vary. Some loyal Americans swore that it had been a complete failure. A novel by Sylvester Judd, published in 1845, declared, ‘There are no fairies in our meadows, and no elves to spirit away our children … Our rivers harbor no nereids … Robin-Good-Fellow is unknown.’ Others claim that the northeastern states of New England were more or less infested with little people, who felt quite at home in their new lands because they were so similar to rural creatures of Native American origin. Resistant to the westward tide, they did not move very far from the ports at which they arrived, though one source suggested that they liked to travel around the Midwest on trains, invisible to the eyes of mortal passengers.

Broadly speaking, Magical People is stronger on anecdote than speculation and insight, and though parts of it are sparkling, others are a trifle plodding. It is all but completely innocent of anthropological learning, though Claude Lévi-Strauss makes an uncredited cameo, and it shuns any attempt to explain why fairy belief was at one time so widespread and so potent. Anyone who wishes for some bold explorations of these mysteries should consult Maureen Duffy’s scandalously underrated study The Erotic World of Faery, which, forty-five years after its first publication, is still wonderfully thought-provoking as well as erudite. Since I do not wish to offend Tinker Bell and cause any more fairies to die, I will offer Magical Folk a round of applause. But only polite applause.

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