reading

2. The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns, and Fairies

In an effort to actually read all of the books I received for Christmas 2020 in a time frame not measured in years, I moved right along to this small volume–a pamphlet, really, given that half of its 60 pages are editorial introduction. It was written Robert Kirk, a Scottish minister, in the late 1600s.

Unfortunately, the title is a tad misleading, implying as it does a coherence that the book lacks. I’m honestly hard put to describe this work; the best I can do is a collection of observations and musings on the nature of “the subterranean inhabitants” and their manner of existence and interactions with humans.

The entire thing is written in an earnest attempt at scientific fashion by someone not well-equipped for the task, if only by the times in which they happened to live. My favorite bit for the sheer effort of logic in it is a reference to healing abilities, which he conjectures “proceeds only from the sanitive balsam of their healthful constitutions, virtue going out from them by spirituous effluxes unto the patient, and their vigorous healthy spirits affecting the sick as usually the unhealthy fumes of the sick infect the sound and whole.” Makes perfect sense as a theory.

A fair amount of the text is spent in the author’s wrestling with the subject of the second sight, which is generally accepted as factual and is the primary means by which humans can interact with the ethereal peoples, and which is generally chalked up to some usually-inherited acuity of vision, although there are means by which people who aren’t born with it can acquire it.

The introduction is interesting in itself, being by Andrew Lang (of the [color] Fairy Books) and speaking as it does with blithe authority on the topic of “psychical research” and anthropological theories that are either cringe-inducing or at best amusing from the current vantage. Lang’s writing style is by no means easily parsed, and the result is like looking through several layers of glass; Lang’s 19th century perspective on a 17th century Scot’s perspective on fairy stories that go back who knows how much farther. Lang’s interest seems to be mostly in what other writers might refer to as poltergeist activity and the problem of fakery in all such research.

It is a curious little book, and I’m happy to have encountered it. If you’re in the market for research materials, this is a dense bit of source material, but it includes loads of anecdotes about ordinary villagers’ encounters with this secret commonwealth and the everyday application of second sight that could be useful to a fantasy or historical fiction writer.

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