Diane Purkiss: At The Bottom Of The Garden: A Dark History of Fairies, Hobgoblins, and Other Troublesome Things

Whilst there are many good books on the fey folk, most only cover the good aspects of them. Our library is full of books that would lead one to believe that the fey are really nice folk who help out with chores and generally are easy to get along with. But what if the fey are much darker beings than generally believed? What if there are truly dark things lurking at the bottom of the garden waiting to snatch little children away? What if there are really trolls under the bridge, and no amount of trickery could keep you from becoming their ever-so tasty supper? Are you shivering yet? Well, me friends, wrap that shawl a little tighter around you because we’re going to look at At The Bottom Of The Garden: A Dark History of Fairies, Hobgoblins, and Other Troublesome Things, a history of creatures that are not nearly as nice as we’d like them to be. Not a highly favoured approach, I would note, as most believers in the fey aren’t fond of thinking of them as anything but really nice beings made of sugar and other good things. (Did you know that there’s even a modern fad for fairy parties?) So make sure that fire is well stoked; we wouldn’t want it to get dark, would we? But don’t get too comfortable…

Diane Purkiss is the author of The Witch in History, and she was formerly Professor of English at Exeter University, but is now Fellow and Tutor at Keble College, Oxford. At the Bottom of the Garden is a detailed history of fairies from the ancient world to the present day. Richly detailed in both folklore and literature, it is a well-written account of the important role that fairies and the stories about them have played in our society.

An interesting fact about this book is that the United Kingdom edition is called Troublesome Things. Same artwork on both — a detail from Richard Dadd’s ‘The Fairy-Feller’s Master Stroke’, an early Victorian painting. But the books have different titles. Perhaps New York University Press thinks that Americans need a more descriptive title in order to purchase a book of this nature.

It is not clear if Purkiss believes in the fey ones, but she certainly has studied them. Her acknowledgments suggest that she at least knows that many folks take them seriously and that they are part of our popular culture, showing up in literature such as Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks, a novel in which the Seelie and Unseelie Courts fight a pitched battle on Midsummer’s Eve in present-day Minneapolis; and the Buffy the Vampire Slayer programme with its odd cast of mostly troublesome fey beings. As Eddi says in War for the Oaks, ‘When Faerie and my world intersect, does anything good ever come of it?’ And that is the approach that Purkiss takes. She tells about beings made largely of piss and vinegar — beings who, unlike the fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream who commit mostly harmless trickeries upon the mortals they encounter, can and do cause real, lasting harm.

The ever-so-cute world of fairies created by Brian Froud and his ilk are pale shadows of the much darker — and to me thinking, more interesting — world of the child-killing demons, goblins, and gorgons of Northern Europe. But then me preference is for fey ones like Laurell Hamilton’s tougher-than-nails part-fey private eye, Merry Gentry, who indulges in all sorts of sexual antics in A Kiss of Shadows! Purkiss shows that the older, darker fey ones were born of fear: fear of darkness, fear of death, and fear of the unknowable. Her thesis — a bloody fine one it is — is that the Victorians and subsequent generations bled all the life out of the fey ones, and that we need to recover our sense of dread in order to fully appreciate them. Read At The Bottom of the Garden and you will recover that sense of bone-chilling dread that I suspect you no longer have. Just keep that fire well-banked while reading this book!

(New York University Press, 2001)

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