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.


1. Gathering Moss

My daughters, being raised in a place where they simply assume that all rocks have names, christen their own: Bread Rock, Cheese Rock, Whale Rock, Reading Rock, Diving Rock.

Robin Wall Kimmerer, Gathering Moss

If you had asked me a week ago what I thought about moss, the answer would have been that I don’t, really? It has been there on the borders of my perception, duly admired on boulders and fallen trees, occasionally to be touched for pleasure at its unique texture. I’ve spent moments contemplating the millennial process of reducing stone to earth, and then walked on.

It turns out that there is a great deal to know about moss, and this book warmly invites you to spend a few hours in their miniature perspective. Kimmerer’s eye is keen but gentle, and I felt embraced by this book of essays, by the memories she shares of the human-scale world woven into the ways of this other, very small and green.

She explains the science deftly, but also tells you about walking barefoot through peat bogs and a summer spent waist deep in a river studying cliff-dwelling moss; you keep one foot in the physical world the whole time. The past and present of her Native ancestry, the present of her scientific studies, and questions about the future shared by humans and forests intertwine around her ancient subject. Mosses are old and biologically simple–but is anything alive simple? There is an enormous and populous world below the limits of our vision, and usually beneath our feet, brimming with creatures living out the same relationships of predators and prey, facing the same reproductive challenges as any other part of the biosphere.

Although this is a slim book, just 160 pages, I wouldn’t recommend rushing through it. Like its subject, the book rewards slow consideration and repeat visits.

This first read of the new year was a Christmas gift from my mother–I can’t remember where I saw it recommended, unfortunately. To make it easier to keep track of my reading this year, I thought I would try numbering the posts. We’ll see if it takes!

On the subject of current events, I can either write a book (I’m sure someone already is) or resort to “smdh”. Will stick with the latter, as I already have a book to write. It’s on schedule so far, one week in.


Through the Cracks in Beowulf

I promised you a post about this, so here we go. One of the lingering vestiges of my English degree shows in my habit of looking at a piece of writing for things that are just barely there. So one of my favorite things about re-reading Beowulf every once in a while is the chance to ponder the hints the poem gives us about life outside of the warrior-hero addressing a crisis.

There aren’t a lot of them, but these little touches make me think about the humans who created the story, who recited the story, who wrote down the story, who lived in the context where this story fitted as their present or their recent past.

Things like the three separate times this not-all-that-long story refers to killing one’s brothers, which was frowned upon but apparently not infrequent, nor did it get you thrown out of decent society. There are one or two references to gifts of land, a distant glimpse of the work that had to be done to keep these warriors fed. Many references to mead, of course–I don’t think beekeeping as such had been invented yet, so one wonders how much wild honey had to be gathered to keep a hall like Heorot supplied, and who did it? For that matter, who built the hall and its furniture, wove the tapestries, gilded the famous rafters?

There’s the scene I mentioned before, with all of the bachelor warriors bedding down in the great hall. The king meanwhile goes off to some more domestically oriented part of the building, not worthy of description, although also less subject to monster attack. Kings are the only married people in the story, and women show up either in the partner role, handing around mead and gifts of gold, or as wailing mourners at royal funerals–and as a monster, of course, although the femininity of Grendel’s mother is curious as much for its lack of emphasis as anything else.

Speaking of which, this world may not be overtly peopled by artisans or farmers, but it is generously supplied with monsters. In the sea where Beowulf and his boyhood friend swim, in the boggy land where Grendel lurks and the lake where his mother dwells, dreaming on mounds of buried treasure–they’re everywhere. Fearsome, but also to some extent taken for granted; their mere existence is no more worthy of surprise than a horse or a boat. Swords and treasures likewise carry their protective charms, with never a whisper of who created them, or how, or why.

I’m left with the feeling of looking through a very narrow crack at a scene that is dense with detail–but all of the lines lead off out of view, giving only hints of the complete design.

Happy New Year, by the way! I’ve started a new book.


We Have No Idea

“Even now, our science is mostly just drinking coffee with the occasional flash of insight and rare afternoon of actual progress.”

So pretty much like writing, is one of my takeaways here.

I picked this book up thinking that it was different book we have with a similar title, was quickly corrected on that, and went ahead reading it anyway because it’s absolutely fascinating.

I don’t really follow science news (except to the extent that we are all in 2020 learning a bit about viruses), so just about everything in this book was new to me. I had heard of dark matter at least, and was kinda-sorta up on relativity as long as I don’t try to actually do math, but dark energy? The Higgs field? Galactic superclusters?

At least now I know more about what I don’t know. The authors do a good job of providing an overview of concepts that are, to be fair, pretty damned difficult. I could have done with fewer jokes, and I will probably never be able to remember the names and attributes of all of the subatomic particles, but I have a new delight in contemplating the universe–at least the 5% of it that humanity thinks we understand.

(As you might guess, I’ve been doing some reading during the holiday break! Hopefully I can keep it up.)