Robert Kirk’s The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns, and Fairies is an exploration in ancient Celtic beliefs. Marina Warner writes in the introduction: “Kirk never alludes to his own status as a seventh son or to any healing he might have performed, but the accident of his birth must have directed the drifts of his interests” (xiv). As a seventh son, Kirk was able to explore the superstitions of Celtic lore. This book is an origin text for supernatural beings or what Kirk refers to as “subterranean people”. Kirk defines subterraneans and superterraneans. Subterraneans are “those people that lives in the cavities of the earth” and Superterraneans “are we that live on the surface of the earth” (80). Kirk’s clergyman eyes allowed him to see the Celtic beliefs as an academic and write down what he was told by his informers; his unique position as a seventh son allowed him a closer access to these beliefs.
Kirk classifies and describes the subterraneans, what they do, and what their tactics are. He refers to “sith or fairies” (5), “brownies” (6), “double-man” (8), “co-walker” (9), “elves” (76), “fauns” (76), “python” (79), and “topical spirits” (80). These beings make up a “secret republic” (52). What he refers to as “ignorant ancestors” performed “exorcisms, donations, and vows” to obviate the subterranean effect on their lives (54). Kirk reports that “they are a people invulnerable to our weapons” (14). According to Kirk, these “invisible people [are] among us” (18). These subterraneans have different goals and means to achieve them, but they are all invisible to the superterraneans. We have all heard references to these beings in folk tales, legends, literature, and popular culture, but to see it written from a first-text perspective is unique.
More interesting to me than the actual beings are the people who can see them. According to Kirk, some superterraneans called “men of the second sight” can see the invisible beings (23). He likens the skill to glasses for a nearsighted person (23). One way to get the skill is by blood, and one popular way is the “seventh sons” (24). Another way the second sight passes can be immediate and occur to anyone (59-61). Kirk writes that “instances … convince them of the reality” of the situation (60). Kirk goes through what he knows about these people point by point, concluding that they are mostly men and few women; scary-looking but not law-breaking; people who die young are seen by them; a want to see is necessary; there is ointment which can bestow it, but it occurs in other ways; it’s a quality that one cannot pinpoint how it happens; and some want to convince of a deity or “influences on man” (38-41).
Action occurs around these beings. Battles between the beings are fought at night (43). Later, when the men of second sight are “transported to live in other countries, especially in America, they quite lost this quality” (38). He likens the beings of each country to what we call a modern-day department of foreign affairs (42).
Kirk remarks that you “can never be rid of them, but will still have occasions that will need these white witches’ assistance” (64). These people know a “sacred language” (66) which allows them to deal with the subterraneans and transfer souls or sickness (68). He refers to the general prayer or “Pater Noster, called seachd phaidir, repeated in way of preface and conclusion to every remarkable charm” (68).
With every section of this book, parallels occur between the 1815 text and modern literature and popular culture. I was able to draw lines from this work to: Tolkien’s The Hobbit, Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series, and the television shows Charmed and Supernatural on television. This book is a reference for a certain kind of supernatural being and how to vanquish them.
I would rate this as a 3-star book – definitely an interesting reference book for fantasy writers or people who enjoy fantasy, but others may not enjoy it. It’s on my reference shelf.
Kirk, Robert. The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns, and Fairies. New York: The New York Review Book. 2007. Print.
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