Thursday, 30 June 2011

Book Review: The Old Gods: The Truth about Irish Fairies

After mentioning I had another book on order in my last post, and hoping it would arrive early this week, it did (on Monday, all prompt), and I managed to get through the whole thing by the following day. It was only short, and a good read - I have another of Patrick Logan's books on my shelf but I haven't got round to it yet besides a quick flick-through, but now I think I'll bump it up a bit on my list. I'm tempted to by another book, though...but I should probably save my pennies, even if it is only 47p second-hand.

As for the one I've just read, now is as good a time as any to get on with a review, while it's still fresh in my mind:

The Old Gods: The Facts about Irish Fairies
Patrick Logan

As much as I enjoyed this book, I have to say it threatened to go downhill very rapidly - there was a bit of a bumpy start, which worried me a little at first, mainly down to the fact that two pages in there's mention of the Scottish Blue Men, with "(Negroes)" in brackets. That threw me a little at first, and made me wary of how this was going to go, but in the end it all turned out nicely. Yes, the author's outlook on certain things is maybe a little old-fashioned. It's not as jarring or unfortunate as reading some of Dion Fortune's work, if you're familiar with her, though...

While the book is quite short (only 150 pages all told), it's still a fairly comprehensive introduction and hits pretty much all of the basics you need to know. One of the main things I liked was that Logan writes about the subject as a living thing - the fairy-faith that he himself has been, and still is, a part of and has experienced. It's a refreshing change from all the other books I've read on the subject - on Ireland or Scotland - that tend to insist on it all being in the past tense.

Logan gives lots of stories and anecdotes throughout the book, which illustrate his points nicely and keep the tone conversational and quite pacey. Some of the anecdotes have a wry sense of humour about them - like how he and two friends dug up part of a fairy mound once, and (unsurprisingly, with hindsight, he says) paid the price for it; they all contracted tuberculosis. To be fair, from some stories I've heard, they got off lightly. Some of the other stories are from Logan himself, or friends, family, and other people he's interviewed or spoken to over the years (often his patients, from his work as a doctor), whereas other are from manuscripts and other folklorists. There's a good mix here, and he's obviously done a fair bit of legwork.

There isn't much in the way of referencing, except for the occasional casual reference to an author, which is a shame in terms of fact-checking, but since much of it is backed up by anecdotal evidence that Logan himself has collected, it's almost forgivable. If it were a modern book, though, I think each contributor would have been carefully profiled in an appendix, and so on, so all in all it does come across a bit dated.

I was really impressed by this book, over all, but aside from the slightly old-fashioned outlook from the author in places, my only criticism - or perhaps more a concern - is that the book doesn't really go into much detail about the more negative aspects associated with fairylore. For the most part I suppose this is because the book is concentrating on the strand of fairylore that pertains specifically to those who can be seen as gods that have been repackaged, as it were, and so tend to be more positively portrayed in folklore. But while the author does go into the more negative associations (the blast, and changelings and so on), and looks at other types of fairies - water horses, leprechauns, the púca, and so on - that tend to have a more ambiguous or just plain malevolent reputation, it often all seems a little too edited for delicate sensibilities, perhaps; sanitised.

I'm not sure whether this was done out of romanticism, or just not wanting to get too deeply into the scarier, darker layers of lore, but it's a shame, really, because over all it makes book seems a little unbalanced in that respect. It's not lacking completely, but I think other authors would have emphasised it more. In a sense, though, I could say that the fact that the book offers so much that you probably wouldn't find elsewhere more than makes up for it; if the view is a little one-sided, it's at least coming straight from someone who is a part of it all, and a native speaker, to boot (he provides some translations to material that haven't been published in English before, that is).

In spite of this, I'd still recommend the book as a good read, especially for the beginner or anyone looking for a short overview. I bought it quite cheap, too, which is always a plus. I would have to say that it's only a start, though; I'd recommend looking to balance it out a bit with the folktales at the least. Definitely one I'm happy to keep on my shelf, though.