Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Book review: The Good People: New Fairylore Essays

The Good People: New Fairylore Essays
Peter Narváez (Ed.)

The short version: This is a really good book and I'd recommend it to anyone. Be prepared for a dense read, though, but bear in mind that since this is a collection of essays you can dip in and out of it as you like. It's a much better read if you have a good grounding in the basics, so it's the sort of book that's good for when you want to go beyond the basics.

The long version: I think there's something for everyone here, and right off the bat I would say that I've found this to be an incredibly useful book during my researches for various different articles. Three or four of the essays have been particularly useful, while a few more have been a very interesting read in general. Not all of the essays are in my areas of interest, but some of them had a lot more to offer than I anticipated and they're well worth taking the time to read even if the subject matter doesn't immediately grab you.

There's a good spread of essays and different subject areas tackled, and one of the most interesting areas for me was examples of folklore survivals in Newfoundland; the diaspora is not something I know too much about, so that was particularly illuminating, and I think it can be safely said that anyone who tells you that the daoine sìth don't travel are full of the proverbial...There are a good selection of essays on Ireland and Scotland as well, and as far as looking for evidence on pre-Christian survivals in Ireland, Ó Giolláin's 'The Fairy Belief and Official Religion' is especially good reading. Margaret Bennett has some good offerings as usual, and there is also an article on the differences between witchcraft and the charms of the wise-women and wise-men who act against witches, which is extremely useful.

More recent permutations of fairy and folk belief are dealt with as well - the essay on the Cottingley Fairies fraud was interesting, looking at the claims and the reality surrounding the famous case, and the implications as far as survivals in fairy belief are concerned, etc. While it isn't particularly relevant to my own interests it's a subject I kind of grew up with, so that was a good read. All in all, though, this section was the part of the book I'm left feeling not especially enthused about - aside from the fact that my son's just lost his first tooth and the essay on the Tooth Fairy was topical, it's not the kind of thing I'm particularly interested in studying. The articles are good if that's the kind of thing you're looking for, but I have to admit that things like UFOs have never been topics I've found fascinating, really. I'm not sure I can do that section justice in review.

What really sells the book for me is everything but the latter part of the book, to be honest. Being a thoroughly academic tome some of the articles are surely a bit too dry for a spot of light reading, but I wouldn't say that this is a book that really needs to be read from cover to cover. I don't think you'd regret it, but certainly you'd still get your money's worth from it if you bought it just for the value of having it for research purposes, to dip into. Using the Google Books copy to search for whatever you're looking for is especially handy.

Being academic, there isn't much in the way of romanticism about the daoine sìth or anything like that. The contributors almost all approach their subject from a very detached view (Margaret Bennett is always an exception, though, I think), so of course you're going to be reading very objective and analytical essays that rationalise the beliefs. I can imagine that some people might find this rather unsympathetic, but I think I'm used to that kind of thing (and it's not that the authors don't have a point really - from an objective point of view, stories about the daoine sìth really can be seen as tools as much as tales of real or imagined experiences).

You should be able to find this book at a reasonable enough price, and it's definitely one I'd recommend unreservedly for the bookshelf; no, it won't answer every question you have, and it's not the sort of book that makes a good, basic introduction to the subject, but it's great for when you want to go beyond those basics. It's not a book I'd necessarily recommend for beginners, then, unless you really have a thing for academic articles (whatever floats your boat, m'kay?), but it's certainly one you'll want to get hold of at some point.