I have recently finished reading two fay related books both of which deserve a mention. Morgan Daimler‘s Fairies- a guide to the Celtic fair folk, is a very useful basic handbook to have in your collection. I have added it to be list of books on my fairy bookshelf.
I also recently picked up and read Faery tale, published by Signe Pike in 2010. I know I’m rather slow at getting round to this one, but… (I can’t think of an excuse). Pike’s book is a pleasant read, a whirlwind tour through the British Isles (and Mexico) in search of fairies and fairy experts. She visited several places I have yet to see myself, so I enjoyed her descriptions of Man, the west of Ireland and north Scotland, although at the same time I have visited the Chalice Well at Glastonbury numerous times and knew that her description made it sound far bigger than it really is… The real value of the book, I’d say, is the interviews with locals with special knowledge, such as artist Brian Froud down on Dartmoor. The book’s in the bargain bins now so if you see it, by all means give it a read.
See a list of my on faery titles here.
As regular visitors or long term readers of this blog may know, I have written three novels with a supernatural/ fairy theme. Considering about these, I thought it might be helpful for me to be explicit about my approach to the subject- to outline some of the fundamental ideas that lie behind my postings. Indeed, I realised that when I wrote the three novels (all of which predate British fairies, my factual study of the subject published last summer), I had not clearly or systematically expressed even to myself what exactly it was that I believed.
As a preamble, the stories in question are The elder queen, which is set in present day Devon and involves encounters between unemployed farm labourer Darren Carter and Saran, the eponymous ‘fairy queen’; Albion awake! a fantasy that mingles time travel to meet William Blake, Gerard Winstanley and other radical figures alongside contact with the Fairy Queen Maeve; and lastly a children’s story, The Derrick, concerning a summer holiday meeting in Dorset between a boy and members of the local fairy ‘tribe’ called Derricks.
So, surveying what I have written, what are my fundamental preconceptions about fairy kind? What assumptions and prejudices may I be carrying over into my interpretation of the folklore sources? The key features that come out seem quite consistent:
- fairies are present here and now. All my books have contemporary settings and the fae folk I have imagined are resident amongst us (if perhaps in more marginal areas) but they are not of the present. Their speech and material culture is all slightly adrift from ours and there can be misunderstanding on both sides as a consequence;
- fairies are like humans– they are of the same stature and form- no wings, therefore- although they may be marked out by the colour of their hair or their eyes. Their lifespan is very different, however: in Albion awake! Maeve, whilst appearing to be a woman in her late thirties, is actually at least 5000 years old. The Derrick is likewise ancient: you may recall how changelings are caught out with the ‘brewery of egg shells,’ causing them to exclaim how they have seen forests grown from acorns and die again. Such are the timescales I imagine for my fay protagonists;
- fairies are prepared to interact with humans- socially, intellectually and, quite often, sexually. There may well be an element of exploitation by them in this- especially as-
- they like to protect their privacy- fairies will tolerate contact with humans on their terms and at the times and places of their choosing. Nonetheless, they wish to hold themselves apart from us, and resent any uninvited intrusion;
- they are not to be antagonised or ignored– it follows from the above that trespasses into fairy territory may be punished (as Darren Carter discovers when he stumbles upon a fairy dance). Attracting the antipathy of fairy kind is to be avoided because:
- they are powerful- they have magical powers and they will not hesitate from using force against offending humans. Darren experiences this, against himself and against others who threaten to disturb the fairy’s world. In The Derrick an attempt to steal fairy gold leads to devastating retribution. In Albion awake! Maeve can enable humans to travel through time and space. Manipulating the human world is a matter of course to them;
- the fairies have their own aims, objectives and agenda- this follows from what has already been said. Interaction with humans is undertaken for their own ends. It may be pleasurable (the sex) but it serves other, greater purposes too;
- fairies expect respect and compliance with their wishes;
- the fairies are a timeless part of the land. It seems to come naturally to me to associate them with standing stones, burial mounds and other monuments and this is a feature repeated in all three stories: in The Elder Queen Darren meets Saran in an ancient ’round;’ in Albion awake! we variously encounter Maeve at Hambledon Hill hillfort, at the London Stone and at Boudicca’s Grave on Hampstead Heath. The action of The Derrick is focused around yet another Iron Age fortification. This intimate tie with the land and with ancient features of the landscape extends into the fairies’ attitude to pollution and environmental change. Predictably, they don’t like it. Queen Maeve concerns herself with preventing an extension to the runway of Heathrow Airport; Saran and her people forcibly disrupt attempts at fracking. My fairies are, it seems, eco-warriors.
That’s a summary of the key themes and characteristics that I realise unite all three books. Unavoidably, too, they will shape my approach to my non-fiction writing too.
Central to all of the above is respect for tradition, as recorded in folklore and fairy tales. My recommended bookshelf of fairy books describes what I think of as some of the essential texts you should have.
There is a scattering of evidence to the effect that fairies had their own spell books, as well as their innate magical abilities, which I have described before.
There are only a few references to these spell books:
- In Robert Kirk’s Secret Commonwealth (chapter 7) he informs us that:
- “They are said to have many pleasant toyish Books; but the operation of these Pieces only appears in some Paroxysms of antic corybantic Jollity, as if ravished and prompted by a new Spirit entering into them at that Instant, lighter and merrier than their own. Other Books they have of involved abstruse Sense, much like the Rosicrucian Style. They have nothing of the Bible, save collected Parcels for Charms and counter Charms; not to defend themselves with, but to operate on other Animals, for they are a People invulnerable by our Weapons…”;
- From this we can deduce that there seem to be three varieties of spell book- one to used to send the fairies into some sort of ecstatic dance; a second using scraps of Biblical verse for casting spells on others (rather like local magicians offered to do in human communities) and a third that was employed for more powerful conjuring- perhaps to contact other spirits such as angels, a practice used by such magi as Queen Elizabeth’s own conjuror, John Dee;
- The Red Book of Menteith- the story goes that a fairy queen banished some troublesome elves from Cnoc-n’an-Bocan (Bogle-knowe, or Hobgoblin-hill) near to Menteith into The red book of Menteith. The condition was that they would only be released when the laird of Menteith opened the book. Eventually, this happened by mistake and instantly the released fairies appeared before him demanding work. He had to set them various impossible tasks to be freed of them himself.
- The Red Book of Appin is another Scottish tome that, J. G. Campbell implies, has power against both witch and fairy spells. That said, its primary content is concerned with healing sick cattle and with maintaining the fertility of fields (although of course these may both be the subject of fairy blights). The Red Book was therefore a local cunning man’s book of incantations used for assisting small farmers with their common problems. The legend is that it came from a mysterious ‘fine gentleman’, although it does not appear clear that he was of fairy origin; when the book was obtained from him by devious magical means, he transformed into many shapes, implying that he was (at least) a wizard and maybe a demon. He was defeated, however, and the book came into more benign human hands;
- Thomas Keightley states in his Fairy mythology that the Danes believed that the elle folk had books which they would give to favoured humans and which helped them tell the future. The existence of such volumes seems to have been a wider Scandinavian belief. In Iceland the story is told of Jon Gudmundsson of Reydarfjord who met an elf girl called Ima whilst tending the family flock one day. He and Ima were strongly attracted to each other and during the course of their courtship she told him about a book that her father possessed that was full of marvellous lore and from which Jon could learn a great deal; he would become a poet whose verse would have magical powers and he would foresee the future and ‘never be surprised by things.’ Jon persuaded her to arrange a loan of the book and then generally ‘enjoyed her company.’ The loan was made but then after a fortnight when return of the book was requested, Jon refused. He was threatened with fairy vengeance. On Christmas Eve Ima, her father and mother and a man who had been abducted and trapped by the elves planned to attack his home to recover the text. The plan was betrayed to Jon by the captive human, who had tired of his interminable supernatural life. Jon was prepared for his attackers’ arrival and slew all four, including Ima, before burning their bodies.
There is tendency for humans to believe that fairy magical powers are wholly innate. Various evidence I have offered in recent posts suggests that the situation may be different: either it is acquired by physical means after birth- whether by dipping in a pool (for which see c.16 of my British fairies), by learning their magic hand gestures, by the application of herbal ointment or by some other form of of physical contact– or it is learned (or at least supplemented) from written sources. If any of these are at least partially true, it makes our access to supernatural power considerably easier than we might have supposed.
An expanded version of this text will appear in my next book, Faeries, which will be published by Llewellyn Worldwide next year.
I have created a recommended fairy books page to complement my website list, this time offering a guide to what I consider to be the best books on fairy-lore available.
Naturally, I would urge you all to purchase a copy of my own British fairies (and to read my three fairy novels!), but should you want to read more broadly and more deeply, click here to read more about what you should be reading more about!
See also my own faery publications here as well as my list of useful fairy websites.