Sunday, 23 May 2010

Book review: Scottish Fairy Belief, and Fantastical Imaginations

And like buses, they all come at the same time...

Scottish Fairy Belief
Lizanne Henderson and Edward J Cowan

If I had to summarise this one, I'd just have to say: Meaty goodness.

This is a book that does pretty much what it says on the cover. If there's just one book you're after for all your introductory needs to the subject, then this is the one for you. If I have to convince you further, then by all means, read on...

This is an academic text, and (from what the blurb tells me) it's a groundbreaking one too, since it's the first modern study of the subject. First and foremost, it aims to give an outline of the main themes of fairy belief, its history and motifs and so on. As an academic text, it starts by introducing some of the general theory of the study of fairy belief, which is useful for studies in general, not just putting the book into a wider context. It helps you become aware of the problems in the material used - especially, for example, in the reliability of the witch trials, which can provide a huge amount of information on fairy belief and folk customs, as well as confessions of dubious veracity, the evidence being skewed to conform to the latest theories on witchcraft, and so on.

Getting into the meat of it, each chapter covers a different area - the nature of fairy belief and the lore, how they were (and are) perceived, the influence of the Reformation and the witchcraft trials, and in particular, one chapter is dedicated to Robert Kirk and The Secret Commonwealth. To be honest, I'm hard pressed to find much negative to say about it - it's well-referenced and well laid out, well-written, and doesn't veer into dense paragraphs full of jargon and Teh Big Wurdz. And for the most part, it's an engaging read. And it will certainly do a good job of disabusing anyone with the notion that fairies a really just terribly terribly misunderstood, and actually quite nice.

I suppose the biggest negative of the book is that it assumed a more in-depth knowledge of history than the casual reader might have. For me it was the Reformation, and so forth - that's not my period of interest, really, so I'm a little hazy on it these days, and found it distracting at times.

It's a thorough work, although I'm sure it only touches the surface, really, but it's a very satisfying read and definitely worth it. It would probably be best appreciated if you already have a bit of an idea of the subject, with something like Evans-Wentz's The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries at the least. And I've yet to read Narváez's The Good People (I've only managed a flick through), but I think these would complement each other well. And speaking of complements:

Fantastical Imaginations: The Supernatural in Scottish History and Culture
Lizanne Henderson (Ed.)

This book is more of a mixed bag, for me, and maybe it's because of what it is: a collection of essays on various supernatural subjects in Scottish history. In reading this kind of thing - collections - sometimes it's difficult to fully appreciate the book as a whole because each author will naturally have a different voice, and as far as reading the book from cover to cover is concerned, I sometimes find it difficult to get into the book's flow. I guess my feelings about this book were inevitably going to be a bit more muted than most books I read.

So yes, there were some chapters I struggled to wade through at times, and maybe it's not just the different voices to contend with, chopping and changing from almost conversational, to more formal, or the subject moving from something that's engaging to something that's really not (I'm not sure I'll ever manage some enthusiasm for the Scottish Enlightenment)...I think a big part of the problem for me is that because there's such a limited amount of space (I presume) that each author has, sometimes the points they try to make just don't seem to be fully developed, or explored thoroughly enough, to feel well made.

There were some good articles - I really enjoyed Valentina Bold's article on "The Wicker Man: Virgin Sacrifice in Dumfries and Galloway," for one, which brought together all the elements of Scottish folk practice that were incorporated into the film, mixed in with a brief analysis of the film itself; Margaret Bennett's "Stories from the Supernatural: From Local Memorate to Scottish Legend" had some nice bits and pieces on modern survivals that caught my eye (with regards to the planting of rowan trees in Scotland, even today); and Juliette Wood's "Lewis Spence: Remembering the Celts" was a good read, too.

But then there was John MacInnes' "The Church Traditional Belief in Gaelic Society" which I didn't feel quite lived up to my expectations (largely, I think, to a general lack of references to some things I'd've been interested in following up). And Hugh Cheape's "The Material Culture of Charms and Amulets" disappointed me in the sense that there wasn't much in the way of anything new (references-wise) for me to go hunting for, but it was otherwise a good article and probably one of the best ones in the book.

I bought this with Scottish Fairy Belief because I figured they'd go well together, and given the dates of their publication (2001 and 2009) I decided to read this one second, because I figured reading the earlier book would give me a better grounding in the subject so I could appreciate the articles in this later work more. Even though the articles in Fantastical Imaginations cover more than just fairy belief, I certainly think I did benefit from keeping that order, but maybe my slight disappointment with this book was coloured by how much I enjoyed the first one.

Ultimately, there are lots of good essays here, but really I think it's the sort of thing that's of most interest to the more advanced reader who wants to get more in-depth information on this particular subject.

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