Friday, 6 July 2018

Shifty Grades of Fey

In the dark with fairies
Much to my own surprise, I have been thinking about fairies and fairylore lately.

It was some way from my main areas of interest. It was somewhat remote, historically: while fairylore has remained a persistent presence in Ireland, here in England it was rather more distant in time. I was not exactly hostile. The influence of literary representations in developing belief systems is always fascinating (1), and my work on belief in ghosts had made me aware of the way various constructs of supernatural lore are transmitted diachronically with changes in the attributed entity.

I had also not set out initially to research emergent spiritual beliefs, and the place of fairies in contemporary thought called for some quite specific focus outside my chosen areas of interest. The historical separation between earlier and contemporary forms of belief and thought required particular attention.

My doctoral researches, and my continued interest in the history of my discipline, have taken me some way into a consideration of new, eclectic and syncretic forms of spiritual observation. I would include the resurgence/reappearance of fairylore in this category. There has been a flurry of recent publications on the subject, both scholarly and less so. Simon Young has been active in research and in bringing together other writers on the subject, as in the volume he co-edited with Ceri Houlbrook, Magical Folk: British and Irish Fairies 500 AD to the Present (London: Gibson Square, 2018). I am not going to offer here a full review of that interesting volume, much as I enjoyed some parts of it and greatly disliked others. Rather, I want to flag up some general concerns.

The book is extremely mixed. One or two contributions were sound enough but still felt like a Greatest Hits compilation, both of their author’s work and of the fairy records. The best work in the book is the historical conspectus material: not much of it feels new, but some of it is well reviewed. There is also a body of contemporary material here, which is intriguing. (Simon Young has been particularly active in collating this material elsewhere). Not much of that material feels well processed here, and it is where the volume tends to drift into spiritual travelogue mode.

The great problem is that in the historical record there is essentially a break between the earlier documented material (which also operated in close interaction with literary sources) and this contemporary lore. The latter seems a voluntary and wilful adoption and adaptation of antiquarian and imaginative literature of Ye Olden Dayes, which points to the necessity for careful consideration and reflection. In the absence of any thorough consideration of the gap between the historical material and contemporary reports, however, we end up with an argument by implication: this is the classic bad Frazerian comparison of purportedly similar phenomena from different periods and with different histories as if they were the same, and with the result (if not the intention) of implying direct continuity through survival. Which very much does not seem to be what we have with fairylore.

This requires some sensitivity, because with the contemporary material we are looking at a belief practice. It is problematic to see that practice presented by practitioners as being simultaneously scholarship: scholars who are themselves practitioners will have emic insights that are of inestimable value, but the practice itself cannot uncritically and unreflexively also be presented as its own scholarly appraisal. At a recent conference a practitioner raised kataphatic visionary techniques as a research tool in the field to enable fairy encounters: this is an accepted belief practice within that group, but as scholarship it is self-serving and circular. It enables the researcher to find exactly what was already believed, thus confirming a contentious historical narrative that might not otherwise stand up.

It was instructive, then, to read Michael Ostling’s much better collection Fairies, Demons, and Nature Spirits: ‘Small Gods’ at the Margins of Christendom (London:Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), with its sharper historical focus. Ostling’s ‘Introduction’ places fairies as a product of Christianity rather than a pagan precursor to be overcome. This necessarily prevents universalising speculation, whether by design or accident, and focuses the research much more clearly. It also enables Sabina Magliocco’s consideration (pp.325-347) of contemporary belief practices (including the visualisation mentioned above) to be really shrewd on the limits and character of the fairy revival. As Magliocco notes, ‘In fact, were fairies still creatures of terror and awe, the process of belief revival, with its kataphatic practices designed to contact them, could not take place’ (p.330).

The historical depth and sensitivity I am discussing here is a requirement not just to make scholarly sense of fairylore (or whatever other belief practice). There is, of course, no requirement for belief practitioners to observe such scholarly niceties in their own practice, but for any kind of accurate understanding of the development and interaction of those practices there absolutely is.

This is not, however, just about understanding a belief practice or performing one. It has implications for the scholarship too: as a folklorist I am concerned that my discipline is invoked in some antiquated and unrepresentative ways to support a belief practice. As part of an invented tradition’s own mythopoiesis it is all too common to find an airy resort to an Edwardian armchair universalism that really no longer has any place in contemporary folklore scholarship. I am not denying practitioners their choice of syncretic materials, but if it goes unremarked by folklorists it will be to our detriment. There is a widespread and erroneous popular view, thanks largely to folklore’s academic marginalisation, that folklore is still a Frazerian collation of popular rites and speculation on their pagan origins. It took folklore (especially in Britain) a long time to break the stranglehold of that outdated approach, and I am extremely chary of seeing it being smuggled back in under the guise of practitioners with an interest in folklore conflating the two. If this were to happen we would be at risk of losing what we as folklorists have achieved, and losing it moreover in a process it would require a folklorist to explain.

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1: There’s an interesting discussion in Ronald Hutton, The Witch: A History of Fear, from Ancient Times to the Present (New York and London: YaleUniversity Press, 2017), pp. 215-242, although the book is a little problematic, being inclined to a more sophisticated version of the tendency described below.

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