A Review of Morgan Daimler’s ‘A New Dictionary of Fairies’

A New Dictionary of Fairies: A 21st-Century Exploration of Celtic and Related Western European Fairies by Morgan Daimler (Moon Books, 2020). ISBN 978 1 78904 036 4

The upsurge of interest in faerie traditions over the last decade suggests there is an innate, newly invigorated, understanding that the faeries represent a fundamentally important part of our cultural zeitgeist. This is partly the result of the internet and the wide spread of information that is now available about a phenomenon, which was previously relegated to the sidelines and even disregarded as an irrelevant, fossilised remnant of past superstition. While folklorists have always maintained the tradition in public consciousness, there has recently been a more dynamic delivery of the faerie phenomenon, which suggests it may have much more to offer, and that its place in the 21st century is an ongoing process.

In fact, the exponential growth in faerie literature, both in print and online, has meant it’s become difficult to keep track of new thinking on the phenomenon. There is great diversity in this new thinking, ranging from reassessments of the corpus of traditional folklore through to radical interpretations of what these metaphysical entities might represent in our modern world. Morgan Daimler’s new book thus comes at a good time. It’s a work that grounds much of the faerie folklore from the Western tradition and provides a digestible survey of many of the key elements. This grounding is essential; however far out we might want to go with an investigation into the faeries, this can only be achieved via a thorough understanding of what the traditions are and where they come from. Daimler understands this, and has written extensively about faerie folklore, from a range of perspectives, in previous work. This evidently underpins the current volume, which has been meticulously researched and co-ordinated with much acumen. It is a solid resource for anyone (from professional folklorist to interested lay-reader) who wants to gain insights into the ontology of the faeries.

In the introduction, Daimler wisely makes reference to Katharine Briggs’ An Encyclopedia of Fairies (first published in Britain as A Dictionary of Fairies in 1976) as the original compendium of faerie folklore:

‘This book has become the cornerstone for many as a reference on the subject, yet in the last 40 years the field of folklore and fairy lore has moved on from where it was when Briggs was writing. There have been new ideas advanced and new material covered, and in some cases uncovered, yet there is no work that equals Briggs in its scope and depth on the subject. If one is looking for a single go to resource on fairy lore, the 1976 A Dictionary of Fairies remains, I believe, the best option despite the fact that it is out of print and ageing.’

This is a gracious nod to one of the foremost folklorists of the 20th century, whose work has indeed inspired many people (myself included) to further investigate the faerie phenomenon. Daimler’s new volume does not replicate Briggs’ in any way, despite the obvious overlap. It might be better to see it as a tangental updating; not a replacement, but a complementary work. Ideally, anyone investigating the faerie traditions would have both volumes on their bookshelf.

The entries range in scope and length and carry a vast array of subject matter (there are over 250 entries in all). As the title suggests, the book is weighted towards Celtic traditions, and Daimler is particularly good on Irish lore, something Briggs touched on only lightly. But there is also much on more ambiguous subject matter such as the physicality of faeries, possession, the connection between faeries and aliens, and their relationship with people claiming second sight. There is a good mix of descriptive narrative and interpretation throughout, perhaps demonstrated best by referencing two entries, which give a flavour of Daimler’s intention. After discussing various manifestations of the Púca and the different etymology from disparate geographical locations, Daimler pins down some of the essential attributes:

‘The Púca is a mysterious being, if indeed there is only one of him as some claim, or a complicated type if there are more than one. Generally, all of the above named beings – the Púca, Pwca, Bucca and Puck – are considered to be the same, however, while it may be that they are different cultural iterations of one being it might also be that they are simply similar enough to be classed together. The Welsh Bucca is said to be a single being who was once a god, while the English Puck is thought by some to perhaps be a type of pixie. In contrast, some older Irish folklore would clearly indicate the Púca was not solitary but a group of beings.’

The Púca is an (albeit complex) example of a faerie tradition that can be brought into a narrative framework. But Daimler tackles many more conceptual subjects, such as in the entry for Selling the Soul:

‘Most of us are familiar with the idea of classical witches selling their souls to the Devil, but there is another concept we see as well in folkloric sources: a person selling their should to the fairies. The implication in the wider narrative is that the soul is being pledged to the Queen of Fairy but it is rarely spelled out as such. This is usually done as a combination of a required renunciation of the person’s previous faith and either a pledge of loyalty to the Good People or else a more formal agreement to give over one’s soul to them, with the implicit understanding that ultimately one’s loyalty then is owed to the Fairy Queen or King. We see this in examples from the Scottish witch trials where an agent of the Fairy Queen approaches a person and offers them things they would want, often good luck and success, in exchange for the person giving up Christianity and swearing loyalty to the fairies instead.’

This is one of the strengths of the book: the building blocks of the traditions are clearly delineated but there is also a willingness to roam outside the reality box of folklore in order to convey the meaning of the lore. Joseph Campbell describes this approach (with approval) as the conceptual appropriation of mythology. The folklore (or mythology) will lose its meaning unless it is appropriated and reinterpreted by each generation, but this needs to be carried out with sensitivity and understanding, something which Daimler does with aplomb. There is no judgement applied to any entry; only an overview, even-handed interpretation, and summation. This is very much in the style of Briggs’ Encyclopedia of Fairies, and it allows the reader enough space to form their own conclusions, and to pursue the subject further if they wish. This is aided by a good footnoting protocol and an extensive bibliography, which brings the reader up to date with the latest thinking on the faerie phenomenon.

And as noted above, Daimler is not averse to tackling some of the more controversial faerie subject matter. In the entry on ‘Aliens’ we are provided with the range of similarities between faerie traditions and the modern UFO phenomenon, from the uses of ‘glamour’ by the faeries/aliens, to the commonalities of sleep paralysis and abduction techniques, which bear remarkable similarities in both the folklore and modern testimonies. Daimler prefaces the discussion in succinct style:

‘Fairies have been a part of belief and folklore for as long as we have written stories from the various cultures we find them in. However, as we have moved, culturally, into the modern and post-modern period fairies have largely, in the dominant culture of America, become relegated to children’s story and nostalgia. This left a contextual void for people having experiences to explain what they were experiencing. This void was filled by fiction and film, as popculture embraced the idea of extraterrestrials and our cultural consciousness became saturated by these new stories.’

As throughout the book, this typifies the clean, solid prose-style, which Daimler maintains, and gives the reader confidence in the purveyed information, which is free from perceptual tenets. We are being given well-researched and comprehensive information, which can be followed up if so desired. While some equitable interpretation is applied, it never overbears the narrative elements of the entries.

A New Dictionary provides both a consolidation of faerie folklore from a range of sources and a new, insightful way of viewing the phenomenon. It’s pitched in a way that allows resonance with both practised folklorists and newcomers, describing a myriad of faerie types, themes and motifs in an accessible but scholarly fashion. It is an important addition to the literature, and is likely to remain a go-to source for anyone interested in getting under the skin of faerie folklore for many years to come. As such, it is a worthy complementary successor to Katharine Briggs’ work, and that is high praise indeed.

Morgan Daimler’s website is Living Liminally.

Author: neilrushton

I write about my subversive thoughts... a lot of them are about those most ungraspable of metaphysical creatures; faeries. I have a published novel, "Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun", and a second novel is on its way, where some very cosmic faeries are awaiting the protagonist at a psychiatric hospital in 1970...

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