Breakfast one hour later this morning since we’ve just changed to winter time in France.
Changing times also, it seems ! Imagine my surprise when, on turning on the radio, I heard that the first “Dragon Week” has opened this week-end in Ploermel. Where is that, you may ask yourself. Not at all in China as you might have thought first considering that the Chinese already have the Dragon Year in their calendar.
No, Ploermel is a French commune which is situated in Bretagne, in the Morbihan department. It is set just on the edge of mythical Broceliande, the enchanted forest which the Arthurian legend proclaims to be home of Merlin the Magician ! For having been there once I can tell you, this forest is really enchanting !
Anyway, what a good introduction to my coffee-reading ! I had come with Reverend Kirk’s book The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies and I was now invited to “l’antre du dragon”. Well, folk-tales, myths and legends are gaining popularity these days and dragons seem to have the wind in their sails…
But now back from Broceliande to Doon Hill which, if we believe Reverend Kirk who used to haunt its wooded slopes a long time ago, is sheltering a community of fairies. Had the very adventurous Reverend really found the hidden gate to their realm ? I wonder… anyway I’m going to read what he says about the question in his book and what eminent writers or critics think about his strange experience. I’ve just received two beautiful editions of The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns & Fairies. One of them contains the original text as it had been written in the 1691 original manuscript and the other one a modern version of it. Guess which one I’m going to read !
This edition of The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns & Fairies by Robert Kirk appears to contain a facsimile of Andrew Lang’s 1893 edition. It was published in 2005 by I. H. O. Books. I’ve noticed that the publishers’ logo, a red cross on a white background, is the symbol of the Templar Knights. After searching the web I’ve found that this publisher specializes in esoterism. Quite appropriate ! On the endpaper of this edition there is a reproduction of an old watercolour drawing by Sir D.H. Cameron R. A. entitled “The Hill of Fairies at Aberfoyle”, but I’ve found no information about this artist nor about the beautiful illustrations which ornate the front and back covers of the book. I wonder if these illustrations did appear in Lang’s edition. We can see a reverend clothed in his black robe commanding to creatures hardly visible amidst foliage. Reminds me of the green men sculptures we tried to find in the magnificent stone lace decor of the famous Rosslyn chapel, south of Edinburgh. Below is an interesting Amazon description of the book but I fear this edition is now out of stock.
Originally written in 1691 this is a truly remarkable text. It describes a parallel world to ours which interpenetrates ours at certain places. The denizens, the faeries, elves and faunes “are of a Middle Nature betwixt Man and Angel” with “Bodies of congealled Air” There relationship with humanity is complicated, whilst they have their own agendas they also reflect mundane human life with banquets, marriages, births and so forth, though the author notes these may be for “.. Mock-show, or to prognosticate some such Things amongst us”. The mirroring of human life can extend to there being “a Double Man”, or “Reflex-man or Co-walker”, in the land of Faery for a living man. The writer of this text was a Scottish minister. It is said that in 1692 he set off in his nightshirt to Doon Hill a nearby faery mound. He was found dead. After his funeral Kirk appeared in a dream to a relative to say the body was not his but his Reflex-man, and that he was trapped in the world of Faery. But his wife was pregnant and he would appear at his sons Christening, if an iron knife was thrown over his head the human Reverend Kirk would be released. Sure enough his ghost appeared at the service but congregation were too shocked to follow his instructions and he was left forever. Occult tradition has it that the Reverend Kirk now acts as a guide between our world, the “midle-earth” and that of “the Subterraneans”. This edition reproduces the Comment by folklorist Andrew Lang from the 1893 edition, plus an Introduction by R.B. Cunninghame Graham. There is also a new Prolegomenon by Alan Richardson, author of the Magical Life of Dion Fortune and other works, which places the text in the context of modern occultism. A facsimile of the 1933 edition of “The Secret Commonwealth”.
The following 2007 New York Review Book edition of The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns & Fairies by Robert Kirk which lies open on my desk is a beautiful little hardback edition too. The ivory acid free paper used for the pages as well as for the cover gives it a pleasant hand-crafted touch. I’ve found it quite interesting to learn that the back cover illustrations have been reproduced from Robert Kirk’s student notebook. A multi-talented man, this reverend ! Maybe one day we’ll have the opportunity to go and see the original manuscripts in the archives of the Scottish libraries.
First published in 1815 by Sir Walter Scott, then re-edited in 1893 by Andrew Lang, with a dedication to Robert Louis Stevenson, The Secret Commonwealth has long been difficult to obtain—available, if at all, only in scholarly editions. This new edition modernizes the spelling and punctuation of Kirk’s little book and features a wide-ranging and illuminating introduction by the critic and historian Marina Warner, who brings out the originality of Kirk’s contribution and reflects on the ongoing life of fairies in the modern mind.
“A slim quarto-size book (like a paperback novel in boards) and less than a hundred pages of text, this New York Review of Books edition is the first in more than a century and contains a well-written introduction and end notes by Marina Warner. Also included is Kirk’s own glossary of “difficult words,” in which we learn the 17th-century meanings of adscititious, defaecat, lychnobious and noctambulo.” –The Philadelphia Inquirer
“Kirk is a magnificent dish to set before any student of either folk-lore or folk-psychology”–The Times Literary Supplement
“The importance of Robert Kirk’s manuscript for a deeper understanding of late seventeenth-century Scottish beliefs about fairies and second sight is hard to exaggerate. There is simply no other source with such fulsome detail about the Guid Neighbours…”–Folklore
“Kirk’s ‘Secret Commonwealth’ is one of those books which are well known but hard to come by…His little treatise is a most careful and thorough piece of work, made the more so by the spirit in which it was written…The result is one of the completest descriptions extant of that special phase of popular belief.”–The Times Literary Supplement
“[F]illed with delightful maunderings on seers and second-sighters and ‘glimpses of the moon’…”–The Critic
“[A] cult classic.”–The Glasgow Herald
ROBERT KIRK was born in Scotland and studied at Edinburgh University and at St. Andrews. Ordained as a minister, he was the first author to produce a complete translation of the Scottish metrical Psalms into Gaelic, translated many other religious works into the Scots Highland dialect, and was the editor of a new Irish edition of the bible. He served at the parish of Aberfoyle until his early death in 1692. Legend says he collapsed on “fairy hill” south of the village, where today his spirit is entombed in a tree, known as “The Minister’s Pine.”
MARINA WARNER is the author of a number of works of fiction and non-fiction. In 1994 she became only the second woman to deliver the BBC’s Reith Lectures, published as Managing Monsters: Six Myths of Our Time, and was awarded the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (France) in 2000. A Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature since 1985, she lives in London.
Now time for me to disappear with Reverend Kirk into the strange world “Of the subterranean inhabitants”. I hope to be back with you soon. Bonne lecture !