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"Magical Folk" highlights 1,500-year history of fairies in the British isles

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New book "Magical Folk" focuses on fairies in the UK and a bit in North America.
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BOOK REVIEW: Magical Folk: British & Irish Fairies 550 AD to the Present by Ceri Houlbrook and Simon Young (Gibson Square) 2018

In recent months, in preparing for a book I’m working on involving a 19th century railroad magnate and his alleged “communication” with a race of fairies known as “brownies,” I have been delving more into the notion of “wee folk,” “fairies,” “elves” and other magical creatures that are said to inhabit the British isles and even parts of North America.

So, naturally I have been looking more into this subject and coming away simply amazed at the recent interest in the topic, noting the growing number of books on fairies.

One such book garnering a lot of attention (and positive reviews) is Magical Folk: British & Irish Fairies 500 AD to the Present, written and edited by British historian Simon Young and British folklorist Ceri Houlbrook, two able writers and collaborators who went to great lengths to offer readers a traditional approach to the fairy tradition, while also introducing contemporary traditions, the book noting that it "makes the point that fairies are still encountered in our time," noting that later in the book with reports in the 1990's and 2000's. 

And while Houlbrook and Young edited and contributed to Magical Folk, there are more than a dozen other contributors to the book, many of whom are scholars in history and folklore, particularly in Britain, although the book covers the fairy phenomenon as it is known in North America, including eastern Canada and the New England region of the United States.

For many people, Disney’s appropriation of fairies in the mid-and-late 20th century painted a particular picture of these elemental creatures. Yes, like Tinkerbell of the Peter Pan stories and films, this wood nymph is easily angered, but they do not look like a curvy Marilyn Monroe, as Disney’s animators portrayed her in the 1953 film.

Fairies, as the authors note, have been seen and encountered by human beings in England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales for hundreds – if not thousands – of years. And in this collection, which is full of history, eyewitness encounters, tremendous scholarship and stories that will make you go “Wow!” this is a book that I had trouble putting down, it was that interesting, complete with reprinted illustrations from two or even three hundred years ago. 

Split into three sections – “English Fairies,” Celtic and Norse Fairies” and “Travelling Fairies” - while also noting that there are "fairy tribes" in different parts of the British isles as well. In the Devon region of England, the fairies are called "pixies;" while in Cornwall they are known as "piskeys." Both are known to be somewhat malevolent, particularly the piskeys, as these "fairy vagabonds" are known to steal babies and even cows from their human neighbors.

In Worcestershire, the fairies are connected to "fairy lights" and "will-o'-the-wisps." They are believed to have inspired both William Shakespeare ("Puck" from A Midsummer Night's Dream) and J.R.R. Tolkien (the hobbits in Lord of the Rings). While over in Sussex, the fairies - or "pharisees" - are known to both help and harm their human neighbors, the authors note.

In Ireland, the sidhe (pronounced "she") are "powerful spirits (who) kill or maim mortals who transgress their rules." 

In Scotland, you have "hill folk," "siths," "fanes," "the seelie and unseelie courts," and "the klippe." Compared to the fairies that inhabit England to the south, the Scottish fairy folk are known for being a bit harsher when it comes to their encounters with humans, and are known to steal human babies, leaving "changelings" - decrepit fairies - in their place. 

Welsh fairies like to dance around oak trees, and in foul weather can be found indoors. But as the authors notes, "woe betide the owners if clean water is not left out for them to wash themselves and their young in."

On the Isle of Man, the Manx fairies are known by names including Buggane, Glashtyne and the Mauthe Doog ... Manx fairies are said to be very musical. And as 18th century Manx historian George Waldron noted in his reports on the Manx fairy folk, they could be of a tricksterish nature, switching out human babies for their changelings, or, in one report, abduct human children - or attempt to do so. One young girl ran across a "number of little men" who wanted to take them to their fairy world with them. She refused. And one of the "little men" felt sorry for her. This caused a fight - and led to the fairies taking their anger out on the poor girl, who was severely thrashed by the mercurial Manx fairies. Fortunately, the girl escaped, and told her story to her parents. Returning to the spot, "the little Antagonists were gone."

But some island-dwelling fairies - these in the Channel Islands - are said to even be more violent when it comes to encountering humans. Reports there note the Guernsey fairies who are said to "have slaughtered the first human inhabitants of the island in a dimly remembered invasion." 

So, one is warned to give a wide berth to fairies if you happen to encounter the usually-elusive creatures, who seem to be part material and part spirit. 

And while the Middle Ages saw a high reportage of fairies, by the mid-19th century, the reports had tapered off, seemingly coinciding with the the Industrial Revolution and more people moving from the countryside into cities, and away from the realm of the fairies.

Additionally, many folks from the British isles would emigrate to North America, between the 1600's and the early 1900's, and interestingly enough, their fairy beliefs, in some cases, seemed to follow them. 

I was interested in learning about the fairies that seemed to populate parts of eastern North America well before Europeans arrived. The various tribes were quite familiar with these entities, some that lived side-by-side (in a sense) with the humans. In fact, one tribe which converted to Catholicism in the 17th century is notable in that the nearby fairy community allegedly also converted to the Catholic faith and were very strict in their observance, chastising the humans if they, say, did not follow Lenten tradition to the "T." 

A distant ancestor of mine, Hannah Duston, lived in Haverhill, Massachusetts in 1697 when she was kidnapped during a raid by a local, Native tribe. She was taken north into New Hampshire and held captive -at least until she scalped her 10 captors and escaped. In one telling of the famous Hannah Duston tale, a "fairy queen" named Tsienneto was said to help humans in distress and was key in helping Hannah Duston escape by putting her captors in a deep sleep, "so they could be killed."

Let me reiterate that not all the encounters with fairies and their various tribes are sinister or negative. Some are known to be quite helpful, although it is admittedly a mixed bag, according to Magical Folk

Oh, and I should add that it was also nice seeing articles by my sync pals Loren Coleman and Christopher Knowles (The Secret Sun) noted in the end notes.

All in all, Magical Folk is an enjoyable book, one that early 20th century anthropologists and/or writers like Walter Evans-Wentz, and even Sherlock Holmes author Arthur Conan Doyle - both fervent fairy enthusiasts - would have appreciated, had it been published in their time.

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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