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Review: Magical Folk, edited by Simon Young and Ceri Houlbrook

Magical Folk: British and Irish Fairies, 500 AD to the Present. Edited by Simon Young and Ceri Houlbrook. London: Gibson Square, 2018. 256 pp. Illus. £16.99 (hbk). ISBN 978-1-78334-101-6

Magical Folk is one of the most exciting scholarly books on the subject of British and Irish fairies to appear for many years. It is an edited collection of sixteen geographically specific essays divided into three parts: ‘English Fairies’, ‘Celtic and Norse Fairies’, and ‘Travelling Fairies’, with the last part focussing on British- and Irish-derived fairylore in North America. The single chapters focusing on Ireland, Scotland and Wales (by Jenny Butler, Ceri Houlbrook and Richard Suggett respectively) serve to put the English and North American material in context rather than providing equal coverage. After all, any one Irish county could probably produce more fairylore than the entire south of England. This imbalance is not a shortcoming of the book, however. The editors were wise to include chapters on the well-trodden ‘Celtic’ fairies, since it is hard to understand fairy traditions in other parts of the British Isles and their cultural penumbra without appreciating their relationship with the better-known ‘Celtic’ material.

The book brings to fruition the development of fairy studies that has been evident in recent years in the pages of Folklore and other journals, largely driven by the digitisation of local newspapers and the access this has given scholars to the widespread and persistent nature of fairy belief – hailed by the editors of Magical Folk as analogous to the flood of historical information that followed the fall of the Iron Curtain (p. 10). The new data has come primarily from England, challenging the old view that fairy belief is a phenomenon associated primarily with the ‘Celtic’ nations. As the editors of this volume observe, ‘if you run a fine comb through even the most urbanized of English shires fairies will come tumbling out’ (p. 8), and the book shows that it is high time to revise Katharine Briggs’s pessimistic view, expressed in 1957, that a full survey of English fairylore would never be possible.[1]

As well as extending the fairies’ geographical range, the book also extends the chronological range of the study of fairylore, daring to transgress the ‘unspoken rule’ (p. 10) that nothing after the Cottingley fairies hoax in 1920 should be considered. The willingness of folklorists to include contemporary testimony reflects a similar trend in the historical study of supernatural belief in general, traceable to the breakdown of notions of ‘authenticity’ and rejection of the idea that later beliefs degenerated from pristine originals. If fairy belief has been culturally fluid in every age, there is no more reason to exclude the twenty-first century than the seventeenth. Another way in which the authors embrace the fluidity of fairy belief is in their rejection of ‘taxonomic’ approaches to fairies that insist on categorising them into types. As Ronald James observes, early folklorists’ insistence on the rigidity of the distinction between, say, buccas and piskeys, simply confused their local informants (p. 183). Similarly, notions of the ‘development’ of fairy belief are easily challenged, as Harte shows that the idea of fairies’ diminutive stature may be at least as old as the fourteenth century (p. 73).

This recognition of the fairies’ fluid identity relates to a deeper issue picked up by several of the authors in the book, but especially well articulated by Jeremy Harte: why are fairies named as they are? Harte’s suggestions regarding Middle English pouke’s displacement of Old English ælf in the south of England, and the subsequent replacement of pouke by French-derived ‘fairy’, are interesting and plausible (p. 68). As Simon Young rightly observes, ‘one of the most underused sources for fairylore’, the study of placenemes, is an exciting development and one that is evident throughout the book (p. 83).

One question that arises from the book’s revisionist approach to fairy belief in England is how the unrecognised prevalence of fairy belief relates to Ronald Hutton’s well-known thesis, articulated most recently in The Witch: A History of Fear from Ancient Times to the Present (2017) that belief in fairies tended to mitigate fear of witchcraft and therefore persecution of people as witches. If people in England and Lowland Scotland (outside of ‘Celtic’ areas) did indeed continue to believe in fairies, why did they persecute witches while ‘Celtic’ people did not? Why did English people ascribe misfortunes to both the fairies and witches, and how did they make this choice? Magical Folk hints at the beginnings of a challenge to Hutton’s thesis; it is a shame that none of the authors pursued this further, although several of them mention the evidence for fairies to be found in witch trials. Also missing from the book is much consideration of learned theorisation and commentary on fairies (aside from a fleeting mention of Robert Kirk by Ceri Houlbrook), which, just as antiquarian commentary influenced topographical folklore, must surely have influenced the way even ordinary people thought about the fairies. However, omission of a thorough discussion of the ‘theoretical’ side of fairylore was probably a sacrifice worth making for the book to retain its ‘chorographical’ form. The editors’ decision to opt for a county-by-county (or country) approach gives the book depth, emphasising the importance of locality to fairy belief and avoiding the dangers of generalisation.

Overall, Magical Folk is a triumph of scholarly research and editing and a long-awaited new survey of fairy belief in Britain and Ireland that will enthrall both specialists and general readers alike. Magical Folk will be indispensable to students of fairylore and offers an insight into an exciting and evolving area of research for non-specialists and scholars in related fields.

[1] Briggs, K., “The English Fairies.” Folklore 68 (1957): 270–287, at 279.

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This entry was posted on May 17, 2018 by .

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