Apr 232009

An Encyclopedia of Fairies
by Katharine M. Briggs, 1976
Reviewed by Tanya B. Avakian

Katharine Mary Briggs was the premier British folklorist of her generation. Born in Yorkshire in 1898, she was the daughter of a wealthy Yorkshire coal miner who moved to Scotland when Katharine was thirteen. (She is not to be confused with Katharine Briggs of the Myers-Briggs personality test.) Briggs went to Oxford, well before this was normal for females; she went on to serve with the WAAF, teaching in a school for Polish refugees. She was still something of a late bloomer; her first book, The Personnel of Fairyland, was published when she was fifty-three. Thereafter, she worked as if to make up for lost time. She achieved her greatest professional success via her four-volume Dictionary of British Folktales in the English Language and wrote many other books on folklore in the British Isles, including some well-received children’s books. In some ways she retained a stronger feel for story than taxonomy, and largely used secondary sources, the bibliographies of which themselves represent a formidable scholarly contribution. But her best known work is likely to remain An Encyclopedia of Fairies, one of the most magnificent works ever published in the field. As of this writing, it is now out of print again and easily confused with other works that are more or less derivative of it. While there are other sources for British fairy lore, many older than Briggs’ (and quoted extensively in her work, as she would be all but plagiarized later), there is no other oeuvre quite like Briggs’ and no other book like this one. In its delicacy of style, its unobtrusive physical beauty, and its erudition, it has set a standard that may ironically have halted progress in the field thus far; it is easy to imitate, often with glossier apparatus, but has proved somehow impossible to supersede.

Ms. Briggs was of the same generation as J.R.R. Tolkien, and it is instructive to compare and contrast her work to his. The fairy world under her purview reveals some of Tolkien’s debt to his native folklore. Though his elves are less supernatural beings than a hominid species, some of their traits plainly derive from British fairies: their association with nature, their parallel society with its own nobility and its odd passive concern with human affairs, and above all the sense that they are a dying folk. “The thing everyone knows about the fairies is that they covet human children and steal them whenever they can,” Briggs wrote in Fairies in English Tradition and Literature. Somewhat as in modern alien-abduction narratives, the fairy folk desire human children to improve their own stock. They also desire human mortals and should a mortal succumb to temptation, a fairy wife can be both an asset and a liability by injecting his stock with the fairy or “elfin” strain. However, while Tolkien also was much taken with the potential mingling of the two breeds, his concerns were political and indeed martial, no less than the redrawing of the map of Europe in his day. His concern with the survival of languages as the means to European moral survival was in some ways more Continental (and Teutonic) in inspiration than it was British. (This may be why Briggs found the inspiration for Middle Earth to be Norse, not British, though Tolkien’s elves are far more like the fairy folk than they are like Germanic elves.) Briggs was more typically English in wondering what was going on in the mind of the average Briton, and found that even with the upheavals of the last two hundred years surprisingly little had changed up to at least the early twentieth century.

In restoring the fairy world as a slippery and disturbing place, both Tolkien and Briggs were anti-Victorians. Fairy lore had been sentimentalized almost beyond recognition by the time of Briggs’ birth. Briggs was biting about “nursery fairies,” and reserved the greatest vitriol for the twee fairy lore of books such as Enid Blyton’s and Rose Fyleman’s. Perhaps because she was concerned to maintain the wildness of fairy lore, she was much stronger as a collector than a categorizer. In fact fairy lore is not strongly systematized. The most important distinction is that between the Seelie Court, representing the normal fairy ecology, and the Unseelie Court, representing the bad actors. Even the Seelie Court are to be taken seriously, especially in numbers. Troops of otherworldly spirits inevitably have some connotation of menace, perhaps because of their easy association with the souls of the dead. It’s tempting to make a blanket association of the fairy world with the underworld and leave it at that, but the link is complicated by the strong suggestion that the fairies have a parallel society and internal hierarchy, whereas the dead do not. Within the limits of their morality, the Seelie Court can be helpful in a good mood. Nor are they either entirely homogenous or entirely miscellaneous. The Seelie Court at times are associated with the stereotyped image of the “fairy folk” as a category and at times with any beings who are not actively malevolent. The Unseelie Court, on the other hand, are downright malevolent. They include many members of the other main division within the fairy population, the “solitary” versus the “trooping” fairies: that is, folkloric or mythical creatures versus the folk theme of another, parallel people. Perhaps because it is more particularized, the Unseelie Court comes across to the modern reader as having a more strongly national and ethnic flavor than the Seelie Court. Many of the most powerful Unseelie stories in the collection are Scottish in origin, and a fair number of other stories are Welsh, Irish, Cornish, or Manx.

There is nothing in Briggs’ biography to indicate that she believed in fairies in the manner of, say, the grandmother of Caroline Blackwood, whose belief consisted in treating her son literally as a changeling and walking about her Irish mansion in a nightgown. Belief in fairies represented a weird pre-New-Age obsession for some late Victorians, again not unlike the belief in alien abductions at the turn of the last century. Briggs’ own attitude resembles that of a writer such as Isaac Bashevis Singer, including the self-conscious addition of literary sensibility. Like Singer, she gives the impression of having grown up in a world where nations were beginning to understand themselves as such, coming to tell their own stories. This would be a world in which superstition was still taken for granted, but where one might also take the risk of some tentative yet implicit trust in rationality — a rationality that was to be severely called into question by the failures of both modernity and nationalism.

Indeed, after 1945, a mistrust of the origins of twentieth-century folklore studies in Germany and in some of the strains of thought that led to Nazism virtually required that British folklorists be firmly nationalistic and yet rational, making it somewhat daring on Briggs’ part that she neither restricts her study to England or her viewpoint to pure positivism. As was important for her British generation, she eluded the Scylla of Germany and the Charybdis of France (Claude Lévi-Strauss, Marcel Mauss, Émile Durkheim) by never questioning whether the beings were believed in or not by the tellers. Folklorists of Briggs’ generation tend to assume this was the case, just as Singer wrote as if his Esters and Malkeles and Shloimeles invariably believed in their superstitions with pure credulity. In uncritically conveying what those who had claimed to deal with fairies saw or thought they saw, Briggs established a middle ground between reducing folklore to a pre-existing mental pattern, with its unappealing connotations of national or positivist apologia, and abandonment of her own rationality. Likewise, she struck a middle ground between the romanticism of literary fairy lore and the harsher nature of the “actual” fairy folk, interspersing the eerie stories in her book with delightful drawings of the Hedley Kow, Hobyahs and Tom Tit Tot, but also including as many isolated beliefs and creatures from the provincial countryside as she could. Many of these present with an unforgettable authenticity, as in this story, which inspires with a shock of psychological recognition well into the twenty-first century:


An evil spirit of the North Riding of Yorkshire who lived at the head of the Mulgrave Woods in Biggersdale. She was much dreaded, but one night a bold young farmer, rather flown with wine, betted that he would rouse her from her haunt. He rode up to Mulgrave Wood and called for her to come out. She answered angrily: “I’m coming.” He made for the stream with her hard on his heels. Just as he got to the water she smote at his horse and cut it in two. He shot over the horse’s head and landed safe on the far side, but the hindquarters of the poor beast fell on Jeannie’s side of the stream.

Briggs’ commitment to the truth of what was important to her or her sources’ tellers may be seen in the even balance between entries on the fairies as a people and on individual folkloric beings whose strict identity as fairies is often tenuous. Many of these latter beings fall into the Unseelie Court simply by nature of their folkloric niche. Solitary fairies are more grotesque, often visibly allegorical in function. Though they may bear traces of a past as pagan deities, especially the females, many seem to have acquired a stable niche as symbols of the natural setting in which their believers found themselves. They bring to life a world in which a great deal that is now seen from a distance was real and could kill you. The Cailleach Bheur is the personification of the cruel Scottish winter. Black Annis, of Leicestershire, is very similar but abstracted to a hideous appearance and behavior, having lost much of her specific resonance as a nature spirit. By contrast, Gentle Annie of the Scottish Lowlands is misleadingly named and even more sinister: benign in appearance, she is the mistress of sudden storms and the archenemy of travelers. One may come down a notch and find nursery fairies with similarly warning names: Nelly Longarms, Jenny Greenteeth. Although Briggs’ agnosticism about fairies gives way to disdain whenever she considers fairies as entertainment for children, one can make an argument for these malign water spirits as genuinely folkloric: Jenny Greenteeth is named for the green scum on stagnant but deep ponds, whereas Nelly Longarms lives in water with a current. The children could be presumed to have been warned against more than staying up too late.

The grownup cousins of the nursery fairies represent a greater terror yet than that of a hidden current or the Lowlands’ deceitfully calm seas. For a people who had no choice but to live in such an intimate relationship with nature that it often determined their lives more than human relationships, the personification of their struggle might have been a source of much superstitious fear and yet less alarming than the thought that most of the world was, as it then was, uninhabited. Fairy lore reseeds a hostile world with humanity, yet on the terms of that very hostility. Unsurprisingly, the balance between haunting harmony and superstitious horror is a delicate one, and often goes out of kilter; but more interestingly, it is emphasized that it is in the hands of the witness to determine how, and how far, the encounter will go. In fairyland, all depends on the human visitor’s behavior. Though this is true of other narratives of human traffic with the supernatural, in fairy lore it is so to an unusually subtle degree. If one considers that the primary function of fairy belief is that of negotiation, the need for such gingerliness becomes obvious.

This is tough stuff, taken at all seriously, and Briggs is more interested in the grittiness of the fairy world than in its representation of inner space or, at times, a close approach to the menace. For instance, she avoids an in-depth consideration of the legends of the Lincolnshire fens prior to their draining because of their disturbing quality. Such is the response of a person for whom the question of the fairies’ reality is not settled. As indicated, her agnosticism as to the actual existence of supernatural beings is one of the more striking qualities of her research, and may at times have prevented her from doing more than recording the tales; all fairy lore appears to agree that there are things it is better not to know. One of the most memorable stories concerns the Nuckelavee, a dreadful centaur-like spirit of the Orkneys. A supposedly first-hand account of a near escape from the creature, here quoted from the fuller version given by William Traill Dennison rather than Briggs’ excerpt thereof, takes note of the short-lived cocksureness of the witness: “He was sure it was no earthly thing that was coming toward him. He could not go to either side, and to turn his back to an evil thing, he had heard, was the most dangerous position of all; so Tammie said to himself, ‘The Lord be aboot me, and take care o’ me, as I am oot on nae evil intent this night!’ Tammie was always regarded as rough and foolhardy.” He barely gets away from the Nuckelavee by crossing running water, which the Unseelie Court fear. We do not know if Briggs presents her version of this eyewitness account on face value, but she and Tammie of Orkney both speak of the Nuckelavee with a very real fear and disgust. (If nothing else, it is testament to Briggs’ literary skill that she could present her spirits in such graphic terms, whether through her own summary or in her selection of others’ accounts.)

There are also those beings who don’t fit into even the broad and makeshift categories of Seelie and Unseelie, or Solitary and Trooping. Some bear some resemblance to ghosts, of whom relatively few make it into the book. Two who do are Peg Powler and Peg O’Nell, water spirits of the Tees and the Ribble respectively, who may be presumed to have enough in common with such as Gentle Annie to qualify; others, however, seem to require an elaboration of the narratives associated with them, which partake both of native spirit lore and the differently explanatory nature of the ghost story. Indeed it is odd that Briggs spends little time on ghosts, given that ghosts are narrative almost by definition. Perhaps this is because ghosts are spiritual beings. Briggs is not much interested in any form of occultism — predictably, her longest entry on magic ritual is unpleasant, describing a nasty Scottish animal sacrifice known as taghairm — and little interested in religion, especially of the Arthur Machen-type pagan-revival sort. As indicated, this may have been a reaction against the nineteenth-century fairy craze, including the meretricious occultism of the Golden Dawn circle. Given Briggs’ sensitivity to the cruel side of fairy belief, one can imagine her revulsion at the way the Golden Dawn courted and reveled in just this aspect of it, though she could not help but revere Yeats.

Briggs’ attitude toward her material is at once agnostic and ethical as well as ethological, concerned with how these beliefs interwove with the real lives of her subjects, rather than credulous á la the fairy craze or decadent and phantasmogorical á la Machen and Aleister Crowley. The great strength of Briggs’ tact is thus at times balanced by her implicit, very broad systematization and her disinclination to look at more specific meanings. Some of the more plausible creatures, such as the Each Uisge or Water Horse, are the least interesting from the point of view of the systematization of fairy lore, but far more compelling from an anthropological or ethnological point of view as organic reflections of their culture. As she does not always consider that the stories’ tellers may not have believed everything, she also doesn’t consider that in the case of fairy wildlife, for instance, the tellers thought they were describing flesh-and-blood animals: the Each Uisge, a very important Celtic monster, bears an obvious resemblance to the Loch Ness Monster as well as to the lycanthropic creatures of Continental folklore. This is not to say that fairy lore can or should be brought into the realm of cryptozoology, any more than that the parallels between fairy and abduction narratives are due to real abductions; instead — and just as Briggs has in mind — it suggests that rather than being psychological or narrative symbols, local traditions bear the closest relationship to the immediate surroundings in both nature and culture that they purport to render in ordered form. Which brings us to the stickiest aspect of Briggs’ work from a present-day perspective, namely, her strong sense of British identity and of a unified British character to the material under her command.

The Celtic portion of Briggs’ material is predictably treated as if it comes from the same country as England. In many cases, especially those of the solitary fairies, the material quite obviously comes from an altogether different inspiration. Sometimes this is not a significant problem. To take the example of the Highland Each Uisge, the Irish and Manx versions (Aughisky, Cabyll Ushtey) are similar enough to the Scots (and to the lower British water-horses or “kelpies”) for it to be sufficient to catalogue each. Besides, enough interchange has gone on between the Celtic and Anglo-Saxon mythos to make it difficult to tell where one ends and another begins, and for a writer whose task was to create a compendium before time erased most traces of firsthand belief, it may have been ill-advised to attempt a sifting-out. Still, it is something of a weakness in present-day terms if only because the Celtic world is larger than the British Isles, and to perform an adequate comparison of its particular lore would require including Brittany at least. Indeed the French influence on British fairy lore may well turn out to be considerable if investigated; the overarching theme of a lost or secret aristocracy, parasitic upon human beings and at best indifferent to their welfare, has resonances both with memories of the Normans and with the survival of Anglo-Saxon culture under the Normans. This also brings us back to the Celts: one should not underestimate the way the mythos of a conquered people often reappears in that of the conquerors in a fashion associated with haunting and the occult. A destroyed people, particularly one that has occupied the same space as the conqueror, all too easily takes over the niche that dead or supernatural beings normally do in the imagination. Americans will be reminded of the “Indian burial ground” and “old Indian legend” motifs in our own folklore, inevitably bespeaking something that is better left alone. The identification of fairies in the British imagination with the Celts themselves (more recently, perhaps also with English Catholicism and the Recusant aristocracy), and thus with the shadows of genocide, becomes extremely tempting. (Interestingly, fairies changed from being life-sized, more or less humanlike creatures to being diminutive and entirely spiritual beings at about the time of the Elizabethan Reformation.) It is more surprising that the part-Scottish Briggs does not consider this possibility than that she largely disavows Margaret Murray’s theories of a race of pre-British pigmies, though she mentions one legend that may have been inspired by Moorish captives. Nor does Briggs give the attention to Scandinavian elements in northern Scottish folklore, especially in Orkney and Shetland, that a researcher today would consider mandatory. Briggs admits that a complete study of fairy lore across the world would be prohibitive, but one wonders how much it compromises her sense of the Britishness of her material that she does not consider all that has gone into creating Britishness itself.

Yet Briggs’ work is outstanding for many reasons: its relative comprehensiveness, its readability, and its transparency, eschewing interpretation to present a distillation of actual belief. While eschewing strict positivism, she stretches the positivist strain in folklore and folklore research as far as it can go, not in a spirit of arrogance but one of modesty. This modesty is exemplified in her faithfulness to the attitudes real denizens of the islands bore to the fairies: she relished Yeats’ quote from a man who, when asked if he believed in fairies, grunted “Amn’t I annoyed with them.” Briggs’ unsentimentality and wryness concerning what she was about would set her forever apart from the hysterics of some of her countrymen. But all kidding aside, her final legacy is one of an authentic sense of wonder. Many decades after her major work concluded, one is tantalized by the possibility of a folk motif devoted all in all to an alternative way of being human, in some moments, and in others to the peculiar, difficult but ultimately necessary interplay between what is and is not human in this world. Or as the French poet Paul Éluard wrote: “There is another world, but it’s inside this one.”

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