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.


No Time To Spare

Already read one of my Christmas presents! One of the things I enjoyed in this book was finding out that Ursula Le Guin and I have an experience in common: that of being woken in the small hours by a cat that has just dropped a live mouse on your bed. Her cat Pard and our Pepper have a fair amount in common.

There are a lot of cat observations in this book, along with her thoughts on aging, on music, on writing, and on society. It’s a slim volume and a quick read, like having a really good conversation with a smart, observant, opinionated person; her personality shines through every entry. I turned down many pages for later consideration. I know I will look at them again and smile, or have a new thought.

It’s the kind of book that doesn’t just make you think, but makes you want to think, want to read, to listen to new music, to travel to new places, to sit quietly and reflect. This is rather a lot to get out of 200-odd pages, and I am profoundly grateful to have spent the time with her. If she had to leave us only a year after this book was published, she gave us a lot to think about beforehand.


Getting into the Spirit

So there’s a new version of Beowulf out, which made me think first that it’s been a while since I re-read that, second that it really is a good poem for the end of the year, what with all of the grimness, and third that it would be an excellent way to get back into the mindspace for working on my Arthurian stuff again in 2021.

Much as I enjoy all of the later additions that make up the bulk of the Arthur material, I am most interested in the deep Dark Ages origins of these stories. If there was any actual person at the root of the legend, it seems likely that their experience of the world would have more closely resembled Beowulf’s than Malory’s or Chretien’s.

There is a tantalizingly alien feeling to these old stories. The people in them are recognizably people, but the world is difficult to imagine. It would have been a small world, one barely populated after Rome’s withdrawal, plagues, and wars, a world concerned with the doings of a small number of people in a small area. In another sense, the world would have seemed much larger, so much of it unknown and without maps. A deeply immediate world, without much use for the long term. When I work on my Arthur-inspired stories, it’s the gap between that world and ours that fascinates me.

But that’s for another day. Back to the poem.

There are obviously lots of interesting passages in Beowulf, but the one that currently has my attention isn’t actually part of the story as such, but the tale of the swimming contest between Beowulf and his friend Breca. There is something utterly timeless about a couple of youths challenging each other, and at the same time the details of the swim are outsize, mythic, and populated by casual monsters.

Again and again the angry monstersTime and again foul things attacked me,
made fierce attacks. I served them welllurking and stalking, but I lashed out,
with my noble blade, as was only fitting. gave as good as I got with my sword.
Small pleasure they had in such a sword-feast,My flesh was not for feasting on,
Dark things in the sea that meant to eat me,There would be no monsters gnawing and gloating
Sit round their banquet on the deep sea-floor.over their banquet at the bottom of the sea.
(Howell Chickering, Jr. translation)(Seamus Heaney translation)

The new version seems to be making quite a stir, and I should probably pick up a copy and see how different it is. For the time, though, while the year wends on to its nadir, I’ll flip back and forth between these two and contemplate a world brimming with monsters.