Wednesday, March 2, 2011

March Book Review Club

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@Barrie Summy

March! Spring! Well, except for the two feet of snow/slush on the ground. (I just typed "snot" by mistake. Not sure that's far wrong.) Anyway, still woodstove weather, and what could be a better companion than an illustrated encyclopedia--short bites, suitable for a frost-bitten brain. And pictures!

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Abbey Lubbers, Banshees & Boggarts: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Fairies
By Katharine Briggs
Illustrated by Yvonne Gilbert
Pantheon Books, New York, 1979

Katharine Briggs took her fairies seriously. She was a folklore scholar, with several Oxford degrees, and did not think fairy tales were strictly the province of children. The tales she liked were those handed down over generations by people who believed in them, as opposed to the ones “made up as a pretty fancy.”

This book is a popularized, illustrated version of Briggs’s AN ENCYCLOPEDIA OF FAIRIES, with more tales and fewer scholarly treatises. I guess it was intended for kids. Born in 1898, Briggs was 81 when it was published (she died a year later), and her foreword sometimes brushes against that patronizing tone writers used to adopt when addressing children. “I hope you will enjoy the book,” the introduction concludes, “and perhaps become a folklorist, collect stories for yourself, and tell them to other people.” (My second grade teacher talked like that.)

Once she moves into the body of the book, however, Briggs is all business and forgets she is supposed to be writing for the kiddies. Describing the horrible Peg Powler, who dragged children into the River Tees, she comments: “If Peg Powler was not invented by careful mothers you may be sure that they made her sound as terrifying as they could, for the Tees was a dangerous river.”

Briggs's youthful readers have to be sturdy of psyche. Her tale of the Each Uisge, the Scottish water horse, ends with the livers of seven little girls washing up on the shore.

Briggs wrote scads of books, among them THE PERSONNEL OF FAIRYLAND and the four-volume DICTIONARY OF BRITISH FOLKTALES IN THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE. She’s supremely comfortable with her material. She doesn’t attempt linguistic fireworks—who needs to, when children’s livers are washing ashore?—but she writes with an endearing, understated wryness. She tells the story, for example, of a young man who, when dancing with a Scandinavian elf-woman, notices that she is blessed with a tail. “But he did not betray her. He said, ‘Pretty maid, you are losing your garter.’ His tact was rewarded by good luck all his life.”

Other elven women, we learn, “were beautiful from the front, but they were hollow behind, like a rotten tree. Because of this they never turned around in their dances.”

Fun fact: Why are fairies allergic to iron? Because they’re from the Stone Age. Duh.

The book is presented as a mini-encyclopedia, with entries alphabetized and cross-referenced. It’s intended for browsing, though—no table of contents and no index. Yvonne Gilbert’s illustrations are funny, lovely, or harrowing, depending on need. If I’d read this as a child I would have flipped quickly past the color plate of the Nuckelavee, a centaur-like Orkney sea-monster that is the stuff of nightmare.

I flip quickly past it now, come to think of it.


StarlingUK said...

Good Lord, that book is on for 132 quid.

Ellen Booraem said...

Yeah, new ones seem to be about that much on Amazon here. But there are used ones for $10 or so. (Heaven only knows what condition, of course.)

Sarah Laurence said...

And I know why you are reading it. Good luck with your WIP!

It's so icky outside, I'm looking forward to the Mud Season thaw for once.

I saw your latest displayed in Harvard Square - love the glitter on the cover!

Beth Yarnall said...

I'd love this book for the pictures alone. Thanks for a great review!

Ellen Booraem said...

Yes, the illustrations are wonderful--can't imagine the book without them.

To be utterly honest, Sarah, I've had this book for a while, and dipping back into it gave me the idea for the banshee book I'm working on now. I'm keeping it on my desk now, along with several books about Pagan Celtic Ireland.

Half the fun of this job is the research!

kaye said...

I would love this books--thanks for the review.

Alyssa Goodnight said...

Sounds lovely...I love those encyclopedia type books, chockful of good and useful information. :)

Barrie said...

I've been curious about this review of yours ever since you emailed me the title! Very, very interesting. And, I agree, half the fun of this job lies in the research. Hence, my THREE trips to Hollywood! :) Thanks for reviewing. Fascinating stuff!