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REVIEW: "Magical Folk: British & Irish Fairies – 500 AD to the Present"

Compared to other anomalous subjects, faerie lore is underserved in the modern book market. For this reason alone, the release of Magical Folk: British & Irish Fairies – 500 AD to the Present is notable—but when one discovers the quality of the book, its presence becomes even more remarkable.

This entry, a collection of geographically-oriented essays curated by Simon Young and Ceri Houlbrook, is nothing short of a masterstroke. Under their keen editorial guidance, a collection of over a dozen additional writers have penned what must be one of the most important faerie books of the past five years. Both newcomers and those well-versed in the lore of the Good Folk will find a plethora of new insights, even in well-trodden subjects such as the Cottingley Fairy photographs and the writings of George Waldron.

Since they are primarily entities of the land, Young and Houlbrook made the insightful decision to, alluded above, organize the book by region. It’s a novel choice which pays off in unexpected dividends—some of the most delightful passages almost read as a Faerie Travelogue (especially Francesca Bihet’s excellent overview of the Channel Islands, no small task given the land’s unique mix of French and English culture). Nearly every chapter features a catalogue of the region’s faerie-associated locales, examined from perspectives both folkloric and etymological: Devon’s pixie places, Cumbria’s Fairy holes, etc. It’s a truly fascinating approach that shines a light on how much we continue to live with the belief surrounding these beings; in fact, multiple entries underscore just how alive and vibrant these traditions remain in certain regions to this day.

Perhaps the only real disappointment (and that itself is too strong a word) is the collection’s coverage of Ireland. Through no fault of hear own, Jenny Butler was assigned the unenviable task of covering the whole nation in one brief chapter; I can only imagine a county-by-county breakdown of Ireland was omitted for space constraints. While Butler does an excellent job of providing a thorough, if terse, overview of Irish belief, it would have been nice to see the book dig into localized lore with the same fervor England’s regions are examined.

Young and Houlbrook contribute to the volume as well, in their predictably stellar manner. The level of attention to detail among all authors is admirable, but Young and Houlbrook’s entries on Cumbria, Scotland, and Atlantic Canada are true standouts. An additional highlight for this reader was Laura Coulson’s deep dive into Trow lore of the Orkney and Shetland Islands.

The book concludes with a look at the diaspora of British and Irish faeries to the New World, or rather the relative lack thereof. In her predictably astute manner, Chris Woodyard points out, “Fairies do not like salt or iron and cannot cross running water. Crossing the sea on an iron-ribbed boat might have presented insoluble difficulties.” I had never considered this particular confluence of circumstances! It is fascinating to see, in these concluding chapters, the manner in which existing Native American lore and the Fairy Faith of the Old World commingled—and continue to today.

All in all, a fantastic achievement from everyone involved, and I cannot recommend it more highly. I will regularly revisit this volume for my own research and (hopefully) travels in the coming years.



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