Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns, and Fairies

The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns, and Fairies
By Robert Kirk

In the late seventeenth century, a Scottish minister went looking for supernatural creatures of “a middle nature betwixt man and angel.” Robert Kirk roamed the Highlands, talking to his parishioners and other country folk about their encounters with fairies, wraiths, elves, doppelgangers, and other agents of the spirit world. Magic was a part of everyday life for Kirk and his fellow Highlanders, and this remarkable book offers rare glimpses into their enchanted realm.

Left in manuscript form upon the author’s death in 1692, this volume was first published in 1815 at the behest of Sir Walter Scott. In 1893, the distinguished folklorist Andrew Lang re-edited the work. Land’s introduction to Kirk’s extraordinary blend of science, religion, and superstition is included in this edition. For many years, The Secret Commonwealth was hard to find – available, if at all, only in scholarly editions. Academicians as well as lovers of myths and legends will prize this authoritative but inexpensive edition.

And prize it, I do.

I was fascinated by this read. Granted, I am usually fascinated by any portrayal of Faerie, but this volume is something quite unlike my usual reading. Firstly, this is an essay designed to convince its readers of the nature of the subterranean hill dwellers of the Scottish Highlands and provide proof by way of retelling personal accounts combined with citation of other sources, including the Bible. Most of what I read tends to be deliberate fiction or collections of myth. The closest I’ve ever gotten to this kind of academia was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Coming of the Fairies. It was very interesting approach for me.

Secondly, the age of this work fascinates me. I’m American and I think, as such, I forget that history happened before the late 1700s. I mean, the indigenous people of what would become the US were not building great temples or structures and what they did build has, more or less, been lost to history. Their legacy is in stories and myths and, while I do appreciate and enjoy those things, they do not have the same impact as physical reminders of the past. It was one of the things I loved when I spent some time in Spain. Great swathes of cities were older than even the earliest European settlements on my home continent.

So, when I try to wrap my brain around this essay being written in 1691, it boggles me a little bit. And amazes me. As the back of the book mentions, Kirk was a minister- a man of the Church. But he took his own faith and the old, traditional faiths of his parishioners and managed to blend them into a seamless understanding of the unseen forces of his world in a way that is quite close to my own.

In any case, this book is a necessary addition to the library of any faerie scholars out there. I’d also recommend it to anyone intrigued by the ties between myth and religion. I’ll admit, it is a bit of a dry read and the language is a bit antiquated, so that may put a damper on progress in the reading of this work, but it is rather short, so it is an easy delay to overcome.

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