Sunday, July 19, 2009

Fairies in Tradition and Literature by Katherine Briggs & The Golden Bough By Sir James Frazier

So, it's not that I'm being lazy, but I'm rolling both of these reviews into one. I was going to write two, but the subject matter is so similar, and I really don't know if it's subject matter that will interest other people at all, and it just seemed easier, since I finished them a few days apart.

My nerdery is in full, giddy bloom with these two books! Quick synopsis. Both of these books are nonfiction, classics (more or less) in the field of folklore and mythology studies. Golden Bough is the older of the two, and one of the first really indepth studies of myth, and many of the ideas Frazier made in it (sympathetic vs imitative magic, for instance) are still (I think) very influential. The book studies a particular tradition, and travels deeply through world mythology and folk tradition to try to to purport a reasoning for it. Fairies in Tradition and Folklore (which should, by the way, be required reading for any fantasy writer who wants to write about fairies, I think) is a survey of prevailing folklore and literary references to fairies, elves, etc throughout the British isles, from the time of Shakespeare onward (for before Shakespeare, Briggs wrote another book, talking about the traditions that lead to Midsummer's Night Dream, The Tempest, and other Fairy Shakespeare, which I'll have to read eventually, too). It begins with talking about the general groups of fairies (fairies that represent the dead, for instance, or fairy plants), then discusses prevailing story types (the fairy midwife, fairy lovers, brownie stories, etc), and finally talks about how these have been integrated into literature (homily stories, 'whimsy stories', thoughtful poetry, etc).

Both books were E for excellent. Both authors have a lovely gift for taking what could be a very dry, academic study, and infusing it with a distinctive voice and character of their own. Their essentially several hundred page long research papers, but they don't read like it. Frazier has a fascinating gift for corollary, for taking a thousand differentideas, and drawing conclusions about their similarities (too much at times, but he was practically inventing the field from scratch, so you have to give him a little break). Briggs has an eye for fascinating details that draw you in, and illuminate the generalities of her categories with a vividity that makes you want to read more fairy tales (and how bad a compulsion can that be, really?).

Frazier feels dated, however, as well he would given the amount of time since the book was written (Edwardian period). While he does a remarkable job, considering the circumstances, of pointing out that European folk traditions are as savage and heathenish as any other continent, he cannot fully escape the ethnocentric mindset of the day - if I read this book and were an Australian Aborigine, for instance, I'd be pretty offended. From the part of my brain that knows a bit about the time period, I can appreciate that the book was leaps and bounds an improvement over it's contemporaries, but it's definitely written by a 20th century British white man.

Briggs' work, partly perhaps because it confines itself to the British Isles, does not suffer from this fault - in fact, her impartiality and open=mindednes were so powerful that, quite frankly, I wasn't sure by the end if maybe she believed in the Fairy Folk herself, which offered a very sympathetic and beautiful way to collect the folk tales from people who obviously DID believe in fairies.

Most fascinating, however, is the two opposing conclusions of the two books. At the end of Frazier, he discusses how Magical thinking progressed into Religious thinking, and Religious thinking has progressed into Science, and man continues to advance from there - his final supposition is that eventually something more comprehensively correct and wise than science will come and supplant it, which was a fascinating idea to me. Briggs, on the other hand, doesn't see folklore as a slow ascent from the savage to the civilized, but rather cyclical, and points out how, all through history, men have told stories of how the fairies are dissapearing, but how they always bloom back and reappear. In the Puritan period, for instance, fairy belief was quashed, and fairies were presented as demons and witch's familiars, but as society moed on, people did not forget the fairies, they bloomed them back in the same way they always have. It made me wonder deeply about our own day, not if people will find a way to wonder about the invisibile world, but rather how they'll do it.

All in all, both of these books were beautifully done, and well executed, and I'd recommend them to anyone interested in religion, mythology, folklore, or anthropology.


Ana S. said...

I definitely want to read these - especially the Briggs. I agree with her conclusion far more. I don't think folklore ever disappears, it only changes. You hear so much about how now that people live in cities there are no oral traditions anymore, but what are urban legends, for example? As for the whole magic-religion-science continuum...the thing is, science is a method, not a system of belief. And people who believe in science as if it were religion are really missing its point. So his logic fails right there for me.

Unknown said...

It's interesting, though, because Frazier doesn't THINK of religion/magic as ways to believe. He treats it as a way to predict events and affect your environment, in the same way that we treat science - in some ways I can understand that viewpoint. Think of a psych medication, for instance: science says it works, we try to invoke it, but we really don't know how it works, and it doesn't always work. Kind of like magic. So, he's not talking about theology, he's talking about human behavior. But, yes, I agree, I agree with Briggs more than Frazier. It is interesting to me, though, that serious people don't believe in folklore naymore - 'serious' people don't believe in urban legends, the way that, say everyone believed in the Catholic church, or that there was a serious respect in turn-of-the-century Ireland for fairy lore. IT seems different, you know?