Over and above my own recently published British fairies and the list of further reading and original sources included in that, I list here what I consider to be the most useful and readable of the available fairy books.
Katharine Briggs was a veritable powerhouse of fairy learning over her career. Her Dictionary of fairies is easy to come by and extremely accessible and useful; Fairies in tradition and literature is also an excellent source of reference, as it is divided thematically and chronologically. For an academic study of Elizabethan literary views of faery, you can try to track down her Anatomy of Puck. This is rare and generally very expensive, but it is an interesting read if you enjoy Shakespeare, Drayton and the rest. There is also The vanishing people which seems, to me, to a large extent to recycle material from the other books. You may come by an old copy quite cheaply, but in preference (unless you like to be a completist) I’d go for either (or both) or the first two titles.
Morgan Daimler, Fairies- a guide to the Celtic fair folk, 2018- this book is well worth adding to your collection: Morgan provides a broad and balanced introduction to the subject. Her title may be a bit misleading: she strays several times from her ‘Celtic’ limits to describe beings that are more definitely Anglo-Saxon or Germanic, but the book gains from this. She offers a general overview of traditional fairy-lore interspersed with her own sensible observations and there are helpful new perspectives, even if you feel familiar already with the material. She provides an extended analysis of Christina Rossetti’s Goblin market which is particularly good; this seems to have been inspired by Katharine Brigg’s discussion of the poem but goes far beyond that in detail. Her last, practical sections on modern beliefs and modern practices are particularly good. I have only two complaints about the book. Morgan’s writing style is conversational, which is a strength, but sometimes I felt that the prose would have benefited from an edit to tighten it up and to add some more punctuation, just to ensure ensure her meaning is always clear on the first read. Far more serious (but I’m being obsessive here), she has an extensive bibliography and makes regular reference to it- but she seldom gives page numbers, which means tracking down her references is going to be lengthy work!
Gillian Edwards, Hobgoblin and sweet puck, 1974- this book approaches fairylore from the perspective of etymology. The subtitle is ‘Fairy names and natures’ and this neatly conveys the contents. It is a pleasant read with some surprising detail even if you know the area well. In any case, fresh perspectives on familiar subjects can still highlight aspects you had otherwise overlooked.
Jeremy Harte, Explore fairy tradition, Heart of Albion Press, 2004- this book is written from an academic folklorist perspective, which means that Harte is robustly practical in his approach to the evidence and seeks in all fairy tales a sociological and psychological motivation (in other words, he is not a believer…!) If you can cope with his common sense approach, there is plenty of interest here and a very good list of further sources. Personally, I felt there was overmuch reliance on evidence from Ireland: in my own book I excluded this just as much as I excluded continental material. We may share historical links and (since colonisation) we may share a language, but I still regard Ireland (just as much as the Isle of Man) as separate countries with their own independent traditions. They may be related to British myths, but we should be cautious to assume too close an association or evolution.
Thomas Keightley, The fairy mythology- this was published first in the 1820s. My copy is Victorian single volume edition and is now collapsing from many years of use. Keightley provides a survey of world fairy mythology through the ages, from medieval legend and the peris of Persia to comprehensive accounts of the folklore of Europe. It is a rich source of information and original texts as well as an invaluable overview of beliefs across Europe that can be used for comparative purposes. Any serious student should have copy!
Rev. Robert Kirk, The secret commonwealth of elves, fauns and fairies (1691). This is (by some considerable distance) the oldest serious analysis of the fairy faith, written by a Protestant minister living on the edge of the Scottish Highlands. Its author lived in a community where the beliefs were still seriously believed and respected and, it seems, he was prepared to believe them himself, despite his religious vocation. Lewis Spence memorably described the book as “curious and delectable” and I am constantly returning to it for the information and views recorded. It is widely available in a number of cheap modern reprints. The one from the Lost Library in Glastonbury is recommended.
Wirt Sikes, British goblins. This is in fact a survey of a range of folk beliefs prevailing in Wales in the late nineteenth century. About half the text concerns the Tylwyth teg, ellyllon, gwragedd annwn and other Welsh fairy beings. Unlike some of the titles I’ve listed, it can be found in multitude of cheap modern editions at highly affordable prices (for example, from Lost Library), so its definitely deserving a place on your bookshelf.
Lewis Spence- he is best known for British fairy origins which is exactly what its title suggests, an examination of the various theories as to why people came to believe in an invisible separate race of beings. We are talking about spirits of the dead, former pagan gods, former races and the like here (see my posting on this). Less commonly found is his Fairy tradition in Britain, a volume written by Spence as a companion to Fairy origins. Whilst the former discusses the theories, the latter provides the source materials. It is one of the most comprehensive and detailed accounts of the fairy beliefs of Britain and Ireland and would be worth acquiring. However, it has not been made available in cheap reprints and it is therefore rare and accordingly expensive.
Evans-Wentz, The fairy faith in Celtic countries, 1911- this book is widely available in reprints and deserves a place on your bookshelf. The first part of the book is a survey of the current state of belief in Ireland, Scotland, Cornwall, Wales and Brittany. Either working with local researchers or relying upon fieldwork undertaken on his belief, Evans-Wentz gathered a detailed statements on the nature and activities of their local fairies. This section of the text is still incredibly useful. The author then moves on to an analysis of these beliefs, heavily tinged with contemporary Theosophist thought. There is still valuable material here but his arguments have dated rather seriously. Again, widely reprinted, and again Lost Library have an edition.
Simon Young and Ceri Houlbrook, Magical folk, 2018- a regional survey of fairy types in the British isles, Ireland, the Channel Islands and New England and Canada. I found lots I’d never encountered before, as well as useful new leads and perspectives. Recommended.
I decided to overcome my modesty and give a plug to my own works too. British fairies, published in summer 2017 by Green Magic Publishing in Glastonbury, is a themed examination of the character and temperament of the British fairy types. The book has had some favourable reviews: Green Mantle magazine described it as “a helpful and wide-ranging book” and “useful and informative.” Waldo Varjak, in a review on Goodreads, describes it as “an authoritative study abounding with footnotes from cross-referenced material vital to forming a clear picture of a very unclear subject.” “This is the desk reference for which you have been waiting… concise, organized, and well-written… It reveals the truth of British fairies in a way only an honest and thorough exploration of the diverse narratives can accomplish. Highly recommended for pleasure as well as for its scholarship.”
As I have described in a posting on ‘my fairy philosophy,’ my views on the nature and habitat of British fairies are reflected in my three fairy stories. These are published both as Kindle e-books and as paperbacks by Amazon, and are:
- The Elder Queen– a supernatural story of unemployment, divorce, debt, environmental activism and redemption set in North Devon;
- Albion awake! a complex interweaving of radical protest politics and mysterious fairy magic in and around modern day London; and,
- The Derrick– a fairy story for older children set in present day Dorset.