Monday 30 April 2012

Pre-Beltane special review: The Fairies In Tradition And Literature by Katharine Briggs

This is a superb book!

Briggs surveys the fairy lore and literature of the British Isles with a sympathetic, shrewd eye. She has a strong sense of the aesthetics of wonder - of how the sublime and the uncanny are two sides of a coin that has no room for mere whimsy or easy didactic. This instinct for the aesthetics of the 'true' fairy is reliable - it's the chief reason why Briggs intuits that the Cottingley fairies are inauthentic. That, and the fact that they look suspiciously like sentimental Victorian fairy prints rather than any of the earlier depictions of the fairy folk.

Briggs relates many fairy stores collected by folklorists and surveys the literary fairy genre as well. The stories told range from the charming to the unsettling. Along the way she also points out interesting patterns. It is always the old who are said to have access to fairy lore, and from the earliest times the fairies have been spoken of as an ancient people who are now vanishing. 'The tradition of them burns up and flickers like a candle that is going out, and then perhaps for a time burns up again, but always the fairies are to be seen only between two twinklings of an eye; their gifts must be secret if they are to be enjoyed; they are, and always have been; the Hidden People'.

A stimulating mix of scholarship, critique and storytelling, this book is perfect for anyone looking for an overview that is neither cloying, credulous nor blind to the glimpses of the numinous afforded by folk traditions like this.

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