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‘The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns, and Fairies’, by Robert Kirk, introduced by Marina Warner

  • Published at 03:03 pm June 1st, 2019
The Secret Commonwealth

Nicholas Lezard’s choice

We like to think we are above this kind of thing now, but there has, for centuries, been a remarkably consistent belief, throughout the world, in intelligences or beings that, while inhabiting the world, do not do so in the way that we do; for whom time flows differently, and with the power to help or harm, depending on whether we acknowledge and propitiate them. They are variously called Elves, or Pixies or Piskies, or, out of terrified respect, the Fair Folk.

In 1691, the minister Robert Kirk wrote a treatise on this world; his connection to the Church did not dim his enthusiasm in researching his work; when he interviewed locals about legends of other beings he wasn’t hunting for heretics. (Interestingly, or, if you prefer, spookily, he was said to have been abducted by the Fairies himself; if we take the story at face value, he is still imprisoned in their realm. You can read the account for yourself in Marina Warner’s introduction.) The work remained unpublished until it was rediscovered by Walter Scott in 1815, but has been hard to track down since an 1893 edition.

The book is a trove—almost, you could say, like a fairy’s treasure-trove—of anecdote and tall story, either of the doings of the mystical folk themselves, or of the visions of the seers—those gifted with the ability to see them. My favorite is this one, and although it could be dismissed as a variant on the ineluctability of fate and the self-fulfilling prophecy (cf. the Merchant in Samarra, as retold by Somerset Maugham), it still has the power to raise the hair on the back of the neck:

“It is notoriously known what in Killin within Perthshire fell tragically out with a yeoman that lived hard by, who coming to a company within an ale-house where a seer sat at table, that, at the sight of the entrant neighbour, the seer, starting, rose to go out of the house, and being asked the reason of his haste, told that the entrant man should die within two days, at which news the named entrant stabbed the seer and was himself executed two days after for the fact.”

This was written at a time when science and superstition were equally important ways of interpreting the world. You can find a similar mixture of empirical investigation and what could be called hocus-pocus in Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, an earlier piece of Seventeenth-Century intellectual investigation. (The Secret Commonwealth is considerably shorter, but it still has the wonderful, slightly mad headlong rush of English prose written at that time. Sadly, NYRB have modernized the punctuation and spelling, which I think is unnecessary; but I suppose not everyone relishes archaic English spelling as much as I do.)  All the time Kirk is aware that our credulity might be being tested, but as he says: “... every age hath some secret left for its discovery, and who knows but this intercourse betwixt the two kinds of rational inhabitants of the same earth may be not only believed shortly but a freely entertained and as well-known as now the art of navigation, printing, gunning, riding on saddles with stirrups, and the discoveries of microscopes which were sometimes as great a wonder and as hard to be believed.” (Note, in particular, that reference to microscopes—not the only one in the book—Robert Hooke had, not long beforehand, published his work Micrographia, in which a whole hidden world was revealed to us.) 

Marina Warner’s introduction is almost worth the price of the book alone. (Anyone familiar with her work will recognize that she is supremely qualified to write it, and I salute the publisher for commissioning her.) She makes several fascinating points, such as that there was a political dimension to belief in the spirit world in the Celtic lands: these were things that were visible to Irish and Scottish people, and not to the English. (James I, before becoming King of England as well as Scotland, wrote the treatise Daemonologie, which, among other things, justified witch-hunting.) She opens with the remarkable story of a council in Perthshire, Scotland (that county again), refusing a property planning permission to develop a site on the grounds that there was a fairy stone standing on it; to remove it, the locals argued, would cause unforeseeable ill fortune. Less “superstitious” people argued against its removal on historical grounds; it was connected to the Picts, and their ancient kings were said to have been crowned there. But it was the belief in fairies (very similar, it seems, to beliefs in Iceland) that got the headlines; for this happened in 2005. 

And so this work continues to fascinate, and, indeed, influence; Philip Pulman’s next book is going to be called The Secret Commonwealth, and the title is a direct and deliberate reference to Kirk’s book. Whether the publication of this edition so close to the publication of Pulman’s work is a coincidence or not I don’t know; it would be nice to think that there was something uncanny about it. For we love stories about the uncanny; and the idea of a world hidden from us, that can have curious influence on our own, mischievous or not, has a certain appeal, does it not? You may dismiss everything in here as nonsense, but you cannot gainsay its value as a work of social history. And, as Samuel Johnson said in A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland—Warner uses the quote as the epigraph to her introduction— “I could never advance my curiosity to conviction; but came away at last only willing to believe.” Even a willingness to believe makes the world a richer and stranger place. 

Nicholas Lezard is a writer and columnist for the New Statesman in London. He is a judge for the 2018 Goldsmiths Prize for Fiction and his column, Nicholas Lezard's Choice, ran in the Guardian newspaper for twenty years.

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