Sunday, February 24, 2008

Book Review: "The Secret Commonwealth"

One of the most unique books I've read in quite some time is The Secret Commonwealth, a singular treatise written by Scotch minister Robert Kirk (~1644-1692) around 1691. This essay existed only in manuscript until it was published with the support of Sir Walter Scott in 1815 as
An essay of the nature and actions of the subterranean (and for the most part,) invisible people, heretofoir going under the name of elves, faunes, and fairies, or the lyke among the low-country Scots, as they are described by those who have the second sight, and now to occasion further inquiry, collected and compared, by a circumspect inquirer residing among the Scottish-Irish in Scotland. Another edition appeared in 1893 as The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns, and Fairies; this version included an introduction and notes by Andrew Lang (and is available digitally here).

A new edition, produced by the New York Review of Books, was published in 2007 with an introduction by Marina Warner. Warner marvels at the work and its creator, noting that Kirk's "ministry, his learning, and his temperament bore him on the current in a different direction from most of his contemporaries: towards a benign and tolerant delight in the breadth of human understanding, imaginings, and possibility. Here was a minister of the Kirk who threw his arms wide to enfold the beliefs of his parishioners, who collected the lore of the people, who was fascinated by their concept of faery. He did not hold with stringent diagnoses of heresy or with rooting it out, but treated popular custom and opinion - and superstition - as worthy of intellectual interest and genuine respect" (pp. ix-x).

Indeed, Kirk's little book (it runs to about seventy pages) is a compilation of local Scots folklore regarding the society of faery. The subtitle to Kirk's manuscript reads "A Treatise displaying the chief curiosities among the people of Scotland as they are in use to this day; being for the most part singular to that nation; a subject not heretofore discoursed of by any of our writers; done for the satisfaction of his friends by a modest inquirer, living among the Scottish-Irish." It is very difficult to tell in what capacity Kirk is passing along these "curiosities," but whether he viewed himself as anthropological reporter, faery evangelist or something else entirely, Kirk's essay is a remarkable scholarly treatment of faery and its inhabitants.

The fairies (which Kirk says are also called siths or sluagh maithe - Gaelic for 'good people') "are said to be of a middle nature betwixt man and angel ... of intelligent studious spirits, and light, changeable bodies (like those called astral) somewhat of the nature of a condensed cloud and best seen in twilight." Some, called brownies, "enter houses after all are at rest and set the kitchens in order, cleansing all the vessels." They live normally in underground cavities, moving every quarter-year to new dwellings. "They are distributed in tribes and orders and have children, nurses, marriages, deaths and burials in appearance even as we," Kirk writes, "(unless they do so for a mock-show or to prognosticate some such thing to be among us)."

Kirk goes on to describe various customs and habits of the fairies: "Their apparel and speech is like that of the people and country under which they live ... they speak but little and and that by way of whistling - clear, not rough." He reports that they live "much longer than we yet die at last, ... 'tis one of their tenets that nothing perisheth, but (as the Sun and year) everything goes in a circle ... and is renewed and refreshed in its revolutions ..." Kirk continues "They are said to have aristocratical rulers and laws, but no discernible religion, love or devotion towards God ... they disappear whenever they hear his name invoked ..."

Some human men (and only rarely women, Kirk suggests) are invested with what Kirk terms "second sight" - the ability to see the fairies. These folk dislike traveling when the fairies shift houses, and report seeing them often at funeral banquets and having great supernatural battles with fairy warriors. Kirk offers many of their remedies for fairy mischief, and recounts tales of "women yet alive who tell they were taken away when in child-bed to nurse fairy children." He also reports the many differing views these men offer about the very nature of the fairy people: are they "departed souls attending awhile in this inferior state," or "only exuvious fumes of the man approaching death, exhaled and congealed into a various likeness"? Or are they instead, as "not a few avouch," "a numerous people by themselves, having their own politics"?

Kirk is careful to distinguish those with second sight from witches, noting "this sight falling to some persons by accident and it being connatural to others from their birth, the derivation of it cannot always be wicked." Pressed to explain the diminishing number of fairy sightings in his own day, Kirk explained that as religion generally and Christianity particularly became more common, our subterranean neighbors began to keep more to themselves ... this is why, he suggests, they have been so rarely in evidence recently.

Kirk devotes the middle portion of his essay to accounts of seers and their predictions, then offers a lengthy justification "to show that [such activity] is not unsuitable to reason nor the Holy Scriptures." He concludes this section this way: "Therefore 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 as 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." Who knows indeed.

For fans of the fictions of Susanna Clarke, Neil Gaiman and other writers of modern fairy tales, Robert Kirk's Secret Commonwealth will surely not disappoint.

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